Is school choice a challenge or an opportunity? Both, as folks in New Orleans learned with the dramatic expansion of charter schools in the Crescent City and as Baton Rouge parents and students are now learning as charters expand in the capital city.
Previously, where you lived decided what school you'd go to, with rare exceptions. Then came national interest in charter schools, independent but publicly funded campuses; after Hurricane Katrina and flooding of New Orleans, charters blossomed as alternatives.
And one of the consequences was that parents had to make choices about where to send their children. Ultimately, charters developed OneApp, a common application process.
All this is new to Baton Rouge, where charters are only now becoming more common. In the capital city, EnrollBR.org is a web portal where students can apply to as many as 14 independent charter schools. That is not all the charters in the parish, and does not include the 80 traditional schools run by the East Baton Rouge system. Maybe one day it will, but certainly not immediately.
Once again, a difference with New Orleans: Katrina wiped the slate clean for public education in the parish, so that it was ultimately rebuilt from the ground up. By and large, the results of that experiment have been very positive. It is being closely watched by people around the country interested in similar new approaches.
What is becoming more clear is that building a "portfolio" system of charters is going to be a very different process, physically and politically, in parishes — or cities around the country — where charters grow up among traditional public schools in the same localities.
New Schools for Baton Rouge is a title familiar in the Crescent City from the similar organization in New Orleans. "It is recruiting for Baton Rouge the best charter schools in the nation. In the nation," added John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, for emphasis. This is a welcome development but it is also new for families.
Many families, particularly in neglected neighborhoods, have hitherto not had choice in school assignments. While top charter school systems may have national reputations, their clientele may be new to choice, so EnrollBR, like OneApp, should be helping that process along with a minimum of confusion.
Perhaps there will be few systems in the country with a charter network like that of New Orleans, but everywhere that choice is an issue, these kinds of enrollment assists are needed and valuable to parents and children.