Buses at charter school

Buses lineup during dismissal at William J. Fischer Academy in New Orleans, Oct. 25, 2018.

A report by the usually noncontroversial League of Women Voters of Louisiana that says charter schools need more oversight is sparking arguments.

The review said the growth of charter schools is cause for concern and represents a trend that has set off competition for state dollars with traditional public schools.

It also said new rules are needed on the makeup of charter school boards, more transparency is due on school operations and state officials should demand fast action on any shortcomings that appear in state audits.

"Charter schools are a significant issue in Louisiana," said Kathleen Schott Espinoza, who lives in Lafayette and chaired the league panel that did the study.

"We felt that with the rapid expansion of charter schools, the significant exchange of public dollars and private enterprises, we felt we really needed to do a deep dive into charter schools," Espinoza said.

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said the league review was pushed by longtime critics of charter schools, notably Espinoza.

"It was not unbiased," Roemer said. "I think their process has been hijacked by a group of people who have an ax to grind with charter schools."

Charter schools are public schools run by nongovernmental boards, unlike traditional public schools. They were launched in Louisiana in 1995. 

Backers say the schools offer innovative classrooms that give parents another option in a state long known for low public school achievement.

The explosion of charter schools in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 has sparked national attention.

Critics argue that the push for charters has failed to deliver on earlier promises, and that the schools divert precious state dollars away from traditional schools.

The state has about 150 charter schools, or roughly 10 percent of public schools statewide.

The league, which held its 2019 convention in New Orleans earlier this month, has several hundred members statewide, including chapters in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette.

Unlike this one, voter guides and other reports sponsored by the group rarely spark controversy.

League officials said the review stemmed from action at its 2017 state convention.

Espinoza said the group reached out to Roemer during the process as well as officials of the state Department of Education.

"The league is pretty serious about making sure that we get good information out there," Espinoza said.

Roemer said her group was sent an early draft of the report and returned it with heavy editing, in part to correct "misinformation."

She said she attended a league meeting in New Orleans to evaluate the study and it was led by a Jefferson Parish teacher "who was nothing less than hostile to charter schools."

Erin Bendily, assistant state superintendent of education, said a group of league officials traveled to Baton Rouge to meet with state educators on charter school laws and other issues.

Bendily said state officials were later sent a draft of the report.

"We ended up calling them because there was so much wrong that it was too much to put into an email," Bendily said. "That was the last we heard from them."

Espinoza has served as spokeswoman for a group called The Power of Public Education Lafayette, which has been viewed as anti-charter schools.

She said in an email last week that she does not have that job now and that league studies represent a consensus.

"People all over the state have contributed to the findings," Espinoza said.

The report said charter school board members should represent the geographical area of their students, that a timeline is needed for returning state-run charter schools to the local school board and that taxpayers should have internet access to charter contracts.

The Louisiana League said its review of charter schools is one of eight nationwide done by state chapters.

Whether the study sparks legislative action is unclear.

Espinoza said it will serve as a "framework" when league members contact state lawmakers.

The 2019 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature begins April 8.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.