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Shelly Centanni, Marketing and Parent Outreach Manager at University View Academy, shows a banner set up at events to promote the school at information seminars, teacher fairs and graduations, Friday, May 5, 2017, during a tour of the state’s largest online charter school, at which high school students will be able to be set up with dual enrollment courses through local community colleges, with the goal of getting them associate degrees at the same time as their high school diplomas.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

Christin Kaiser's daughter Mary-Grace is one of the roughly 16,000 students caught in the middle of a lawsuit before the Louisiana Supreme Court over the fate of more than three dozen charter schools.

Like lots of families, they are waiting and wondering.

"I have given it lots of thoughts, lots of prayers," Christin Kaiser said.

In a worst case scenario, she said, home schooling for the Jefferson Parish student might be the only answer.

"I honestly cannot put her in our district school," she said. "Our district school is failing."

The case stems from a 2014 lawsuit by the Louisiana Association of Educators and others.

Critics contend that the way the state funds charters schools like the one Mary-Grace uses, and 40 others, is unconstitutional.

Charter school backers won the first round when 19th Judicial District Court Judge Wilson Fields, of Baton Rouge, ruled in 2015 that the funding is legal.

But earlier this year a panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal voted 3-2 to reverse Fields' decision, putting a question mark over the future of the schools.

The panel ruled that charter schools approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education – called Type 2 charters – do not meet the definition of public schools spelled out in the Louisiana Constitution.

That ruling was appealed to the state's top court, and some officials familiar with the case think a decision will be handed down around the middle of the month.

In the meantime, parents, school officials and others are tackling a new school year knowing that big changes may be on the way.

Millie Harris, executive director of the JCFA charter school, also in Jefferson Parish, said her school has held meetings with faculty and staff to keep them updated on the case.

"We don't want anyone to feel panic," Harris said. "We are very positive that our students will have an opportunity to choose an appropriate place for their education."

Charter schools are public schools run by non-governmental boards. About 80,000 students attend 145 charter schools statewide.

The state has about 700,000 public school students.

Charter schools are supposed to offer alternatives to traditional public schools, and have all but taken over the education landscape in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

Critics contend the schools siphon badly needed dollars from rank-and-file public schools, and that academic results in charter schools have largely failed to meet the promises of supporters.

Officials of the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state's two teacher unions, noted that the Legislature, after a court challenge, found a way to finance vouchers outside the traditional funding mechanism for most public schools, called the Minimum Foundation Program.

"The overwhelming majority of students attending school in Louisiana learn in public school classrooms operated by elected parish and city school boards, and those students are entitled to receive the funding the constitution promises," the organization said in a statement.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit said it has never been their intention to close schools.

For others the lawsuit threatens to upend their child's school routine.

Mary-Grace is a 7th grader enrolled in the Baton Rouge-based University View Academy, an online charter school.

Christin Kaiser, who has a full-time job, said her daughter does her school work at her mother's office, and the school has provided a needed academic push.

"The program is very rigorous," she said. "It is preparing her to be back in a high school setting."

Quinn Quaglino's daughter Theresa is a sophomore at New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy.

Quaglino, a U.S. Marine casualty investigator, said Theresa likes the school and he does too, including the fact that student cell phones are collected at the start of each school day.

All of the instructors are former Marines.

"There is no doubt about who is in charge in any room," he said.

Quaglino said a school leader said last year that the school would not be closed but he is not familiar with details of the court case.

"It is just a pleasant surprise on how much she is enjoying it," he said.

One of the groups on the side of the schools is the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the group, said the court will either say that a public school "doesn't have to fit one simple definition" or side with a part of the state constitution written before charter schools began.

"It is hard for me to predict what we may need to do," Roemer said.

Some charter school advocates say that, if they lose in court, they will seek financial assistance in the Legislature, which provides about $60 million per year for the schools in dispute.

Cecilia Garcia, principal of the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy, said the only talk she is hearing about the case is from parents, community members and legislators on how they can support any efforts to keep the school open if the court ruling goes against them.

"I don't have concerns," Garcia said.

Part of the case pending includes a lawsuit filed by the Iberville Parish School District, which also questioned how charter school are funded.

Arthur Joffrion Jr., superintendent of the district, said the current method is costing his district $3 million in local tax dollars that go to Iberville Charter Academy.

"The call for the election when our sales tax was passed was that the dollars will go to public schools," Joffrion said. 

"And the charter school did not even exist at the time of that election," he said.

"Our contention is they are taking local tax dollars that are due to the local system, and the charter school is not affiliated with our school system," Joffrion said.

Schools that could be affected by the court ruling include three in Lafayette Parish, six in New Orleans and ten in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Harris, whose school serves non-traditional students pursuing high school diplomas, said she was struck by the fact that money, not students, dominated arguments on the case in the Louisiana Supreme Court.

"I understand that is important," she said. "But the education and opportunities for an education is more important than the money."

  

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.