Guest Commentary: State should learn from charters _lowres

Caroline Roemer

As 2015 enters full swing, it is no surprise that one of the top issues that has carried over into the new year in Louisiana is public education.

The list of topics under this heading seems endless as well as detailed: From Common Core to data privacy, to charter schools and course choice, to MFP funding and special education, to teacher tenure and school board reform. It is guaranteed to continue to offer us all lots of debates, difficult policy decisions, and unfortunately, a whole lot of litigation if 2014 is any sort of bellwether.

Over the last 20 years, we have made huge changes in K-12 public education in an effort to address the fact that Louisiana consistently lags behind most of the country in academic performance. Among the most impactful changes: empowering parents with school choice through charter schools. As more parents learn about choice, demand continues to grow.

Through charter schools’ core beliefs of autonomy, i.e. pushing decisions to the classroom; choice, i.e. parents determining their child’s best education path; and accountability, i.e. standards that, if not met, can result in school closure, the Louisiana charter school community is recognizing performance results unmatched in the country.

There are now more than 138 charter schools, serving over 70,000 students in 20 parishes! Charter schools are not only providing parents with educational options, but also driving actions to innovate and improve learning and school operations.

It’s exciting, but not without challenges.

Past and present governors, legislators, and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members should be applauded for their leadership to create the necessary academic framework based on high standards that position public schools for success.

This focus on academic mandates is working, as Louisiana’s public school students show gains. While there is still need to refine these policies, it’s time for the old bureaucratic guard in public education to stop playing political games, spreading misinformation, and wasting precious public dollars in the courtroom. Let principals and teachers lead this revolution.

If we are to support them, there are critical matters related to the operations of public education that must also be dealt with. Think pension reform.

District superintendents rarely say they are opposed to charter schools or giving people educational choices but instead point to the financial problems they face. The consistent trend in their comments is about the ever-rising costs of teacher retirement. And they are correct that these costs are incredibly costly, but are incorrect that the answer is to force all teachers into the Teacher Retirement System of Louisiana.

In the same way that all students are unique and different, teachers are as well. Charter schools are allowed to offer retirement plans that meet the needs of their teachers, including joining the TRSL or providing other options such as 403B plan.

Districts are not given such autonomy and are required to offer only the TRSL. Unfortunately, the districts’ answer to the problem is to call for everyone to help dig the hole, rather than seek changes to the law that could bring better choices and financial relief.

It must be recognized that the state failed to meet its obligations and properly fund the TRSL, leaving behind billions in debt. But charters are not the problem, nor will they be the solution to this debt.

Instead, the state must find the money it promises to retirees, while finding the political courage to make tough decisions and innovate around retirement issues. Teachers, taxpayers and students deserve it.

When the state fails to stand united in these difficult issues, litigious actions like those by the Louisiana Association of Educators and Iberville Parish School Board result. These actors see charter school funding as a threat to school district funding, even though public education dollars are required to follow the child — not a bureaucracy or a pension fund.

Suing to defund charter schools will not resolve the systematic deficiencies of our pension system. Likewise, charter schools are not a threat to traditional school systems anymore than they are a panacea for all of its ills.

Rather than litigate, let’s educate. Rather than burden public schools with costs that don’t impact children, let’s put our energy on removing burdens and empowering progress.

Let’s have the courage to stand up to that challenge in 2015.

Caroline Roemer Shirley is executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.