The state law that allows Louisiana to convert failing public schools into charter schools requires the new schools to mirror the ones they replace, both in grade configurations and attendance zones, says a recent opinion by the state Attorney General.
That’s not how the state’s Recovery School District operates. RSD oversees a handful of charter schools in Baton Rouge that little resemble the schools they replaced. Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations.
The lead attorney for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system said this new opinion confirms that these new schools will have to change.
“We will not go away quietly in the night,” Domoine Rutledge said. “We expect the Recovery School District and the Louisiana Department of Education to comply with existing law. Period.”
Rutledge did not rule out litigation to force the issue, but said there are no current plans to go to court.
“It would be a complete waste of money and unnecessary to have to litigate this in the face of clear and compelling legal guidance,” Rutledge said.
Four state representatives — Barbara Carpenter, Ted James, C. Denise Marcelle and Pat Smith — requested the opinion in late March. Rutledge said he asked them to do so. He said it’s been an issue for years, one he’s raised previously to no avail. It came up again this spring when two elementary and one middle school, all charter schools overseen by RSD, sought to expand into upper grades, beyond the scope of the schools they supplanted, he said.
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Patrick Dobard, RSD’s superintendent, said he has already reached out to Rutledge to talk, but he said the new Attorney General’s opinion, issued Monday, does not worry him.
“We’ll feel like we’re in compliance. It’s not a judgment or an order,” Dobard said. “We feel like we’re operating within the bounds of the law.”
Crestworth, Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools are much different than when they were neighborhood schools that were part of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. Instead of middle schools that were there for decades, RSD has installed two traditional elementary schools, two kindergarten-to-eighth grade elementary schools and one middle-high school.
And all RSD schools in Baton Rouge pay no mind to the attendance zones they inherited, enrolling students from anywhere within the boundaries of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
In her opinion, Assistant Attorney General Patricia Wilton writes that such practices conflict with the 2003 state law that created the Recovery School District. She zeroes in on what the law says about what’s known as a Type 5 charter, which are awarded to private groups seeking to turn around failing schools.
In one passage, the law says Type 5 charters can enroll only students “who would have been eligible to enroll in or attend the pre-existing school.”
Wilton interprets the passage to mean that for Type 5 charters “neither the attendance zone nor the grades offered at the school may be expanded beyond that which existed at the time of the transfer.”
Dobard reads the contested passage differently. He said the enrollment restrictions apply only in the first year, that the children who attended the school when it was taken over have a right to stay, not that the Type 5 charter school is locked forever into enrolling kids only from the same attendance zones and grade levels of earlier school.
“We’ve always felt that we were afforded the ability to build out in order to educate children beyond the grades in which the school started,” Dobard said.
While potentially a big deal for Baton Rouge, the Attorney General’s opinion is not expected to affect public schools in New Orleans, which is home to dozens of Type 5 charter schools overseen by RSD, because the schools there were taken over under a different part of the law that allows for the takeover of an entire low-performing school district.