Dennis Persica: Charter experience has been mixed bag

A bill before the Louisiana Senate is interesting for what, by implication, it adds to the debate over public education.

House Bill 703 would prevent the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from approving a new charter school if the local school board already has rejected the same charter application. This restriction would apply only in school districts rated A, B or C in the state’s letter-grade accountability system.

BESE now can approve a charter despite the objections of the local school board. It would still be able to do that in districts rated D or F if HB703 becomes law.

What does this add to the debate over public education? It’s an acknowledgement that public schools and the governance models we’ve used over the past few decades aren’t by themselves bad things.

Public education along the traditional model can be done right. Look at two top-performing public schools in New Orleans, Ben Franklin High School and Lusher Charter School. Both are great schools and both are charters. But the two schools were great when they were still governed under the conventional model by the Orleans Parish School Board. Becoming charter schools didn’t automatically make them excellent.

That more than half of the state’s public school districts earned A or B grades also is evidence that, if done correctly, public schools can do just fine governed by a district school board elected by its citizens.

Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t any problems; just look at the years of extreme dysfunction in the Orleans Parish School Board. But the myriad of charter schools that have sprung up in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina haven’t been perfect, either.

Some haven’t made very smart or financially prudent decisions. For example, John McDonogh High School, with a total enrollment of about 300, last year created a new position, a “principal” for its freshman class at a salary of $115,000. Presumably, that left the other principal already there at the time of the hire in charge of only the sophomores, juniors and seniors .

Elsewhere, three charter-management organizations in New Orleans spent a combined total of more than $300,000 for out-of-state “retreats” or “professional development” sessions.

Though charter-management boards in Orleans Parish are governed by the state Open Meetings and Public Records laws, they are curious creatures. The boards, in effect, are self-perpetuating; they get to choose who will fill board seats that become vacant. You’re unlikely to find that concept on anyone’s list of good-government practices.

Charter-school advocates would say that I’m cherry-picking, looking for the worst possible examples. But charter proponents do the same when looking for problems in the traditional methods of school administration.

HB703 is just another side of the same controversy that arose in 2012, when members of the St. Tammany Parish School Board, as well as parents of students there, complained that for every student who left a St. Tammany school under the state voucher program, about $10,000 in state money went with them in tuition payments to the private school.

When parents have good public school systems, they want to preserve them, and, naturally, they possessively want to safeguard whatever precious state money they have coming to them.

Now that we’ve gone through a flurry of activity on the education front in the past few years, in part because of the ravaged post-Katrina school landscape, it’s time to stop and take a breath. We should evaluate what we’ve done, and we shouldn’t be trying so hard to throw roadblocks in the way of those school systems that are working correctly.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.