Efforts to put new rules on charter schools, including Gov. John Bel Edwards’ bid to curb their growth, are about to get initial votes in the Legislature.
Up to seven bills dealing with charter schools are set for hearings in the House Education Committee on Wednesday morning.
Still more are on Thursday’s agenda for the Senate Education Committee, likely including the Edwards-backed proposal — Senate Bill 170 — that would ban the state’s top school board from approving charter schools rejected by local boards in districts rated A or B.
The House list includes bills to toughen requirements for charter school teachers, put new restrictions on when the schools can be authorized, narrow who can approve charters, ban for-profit operators from managing the schools and trim state aid for charters.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who is sponsoring four of the bills set for review, disputed criticisms from the array of groups lining up to oppose the measures.
She said her bills are aimed, in part, at ensuring charter schools have well-qualified teachers. “It is not a choice issue,” said Smith, a veteran member of the House Education Committee.
Opponents of the bills contend they are actually an effort to deny public school choices to parents, including the families of about 69,000 students who now attend 144 charter schools in the state.
“Take the whole bucket of bills, combined, and they really completely block choice in charter schools,” said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.
Charter schools, which dominate the education landscape in New Orleans, are public schools run by nongovernmental boards. They are touted as a way to offer innovative classrooms, minus the red tape typical of traditional public school systems.
Critics call them a drain on much-needed state education dollars.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, said his bill giving top-rated districts the final call on charter school applications is an incentive for them to keep performing.
Districts rated A or B account for 40 of the state’s 69 school districts. That list includes the Jefferson, Livingston, Ascension, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. Bernard, St. John, Central and Zachary school systems.
Under current rules, charter school applicants turned down by local school boards statewide can appeal to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Opponents of the change in how charters would be authorized include the Council for a Better Louisiana, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Louisiana Federation for Children, Democrats for Education Reform-Louisiana, Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools and BESE President Jim Garvey.
Edwards said last month that the move to limit BESE’s authority would “restore more local control over how children are educated and tax dollars are spent, (giving it) to local school boards that perform well under our accountability system.”
House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, disagreed.
“My response is the parents know best about what education services their child needs,” she said.
Landry said about 42,000 students attend public schools rated D or F even in districts rated A or B, including about 4,000 in the B-rated Lafayette School District.
Eva Kemp, state director of Democrats for Education Reform-Louisiana, said the proposed change “would harm students and their families who are seeking options even in districts that are performing well on paper.”
Roemer’s group noted the bills are being pushed despite a poll last month that showed 68 percent of state residents favor more charter schools, more than twice the 29 percent who were opposed. The survey was done by LSU’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.
Morrish said the original purpose of charter schools was to help underserved and academically challenged students. “If you are an A or B district, you don’t have those issues, or you have very few of those issues,” he said.
Other ideas up for consideration, possibly through amendments, include requiring two-thirds approval from BESE to override local rejections of charter school applications.
Since 2012, 13 of the 54 appeals to BESE of charter applications rejected by local boards were approved, according to the Council for a Better Louisiana.
One of Smith’s proposals — House Bill 168 — would require charter school teachers to meet the same certification rules as those in traditional public schools. “I believe it is important that kids have a certified teacher in front of them,” she said.
Another Smith measure — House Bill 502 — would require BESE to do a fiscal impact study before authorizing certain charter schools.
Two others would ban local groups, with the state’s blessing, from approving charter schools and ban BESE from okaying some charters during times of dire education finances. They are House Bills 98 — backed by Edwards — and 167, respectively.
Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, is sponsoring an Edwards-backed bill — House Bill 879 — to ban for-profit charter school operators.
Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, wants to redirect some state aid for charter schools and instead send it to the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana. That’s House Bill 555.
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