Pros, cons of charter schools debated in Lafayette

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Members, from left, Lottie Beebe, Holly Boffy and Carolyn Hill speak during a forum on charter schools Monday at Acadiana Open Channel in Lafayette.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Members, from left, Lottie Beebe, Holly Boffy and Carolyn Hill speak during a forum on charter schools Monday at Acadiana Open Channel in Lafayette.

Three BESE members offered conflicting views on charter schools Monday in advance of the Lafayette Parish School Board’s vote Wednesday on two charters next year and three more charters over the next few years.

Charters are independent public schools funded with public money. The schools are run by independent school boards. Many of the boards contract with a charter management company to operate the school.

Lottie Beebe, a member of Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said charter schools take money away from “traditional school systems,” during a forum organized Monday night by the League of Women Voters.

“We’re continuing to siphon away local and state dollars away from our (public) systems,” Beebe said. “How can we expect our traditional systems to meet the needs of our students when we’re constantly taking away the resources?”

Beebe and fellow BESE members Holly Boffy and Carolyn Hill led the forum discussion on charter schools. The women represent the Acadiana area. Boffy’s and Hill’s districts include Lafayette.

In Lafayette Parish, two separate nonprofit groups have applied to open Type 1 charter schools in Lafayette. Each group would open one K-8 school by August 2014, followed by two more K-8 schools and a high school by 2017.

Type 1 charters receive a portion of the per student funding that a district receives from the state. If a local board denies a Type 1 application, that group can apply to BESE as a Type 2. Type 2 charters receive state per pupil funding and oversight from BESE and can enroll students from outside the parish.

While a Type 1 charter school will have an independent school board, Boffy said, there are control measures that can be built into a school district’s contract with the charter school operator.

The district can set performance goals and make other requirements in its contract, she added.

“It’s really important to recognize that charter schools will only be as successful as the authorizer requires them to be,” Boffy said.

Beebe said she’s not “anti-charters,” and thinks that the schools can help at-risk students.

“What I am opposed to is what appears to be the blatant attempt to take over traditional public school systems,” Beebe said.

Later, Boffy said she did not think two charter groups opening schools in Lafayette Parish equated to a takeover.

Charter contracts are for three years and they can be revoked.

However, Hill advised that even revoked charters may apply to BESE to open a Type 2 charter, which could “create conflict within a community.” She said she would like to see BESE revisit its charter evaluation and accountability processes.

Lafayette Parish School Board members Mark Allen Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Rae Trahan and Superintendent Pat Cooper attended the hour-long forum. The final 30 minutes were reserved for audience questions.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, asked the panel whether the state could continue to fund three different school systems: charters, traditional public schools and vouchers.

The state’s voucher program allows some students in failing public schools to attend private or parochial schools at taxpayer expense — if those students and their families qualify.

The state is funding education and is open to options that are the “best way” to educate the 700,000 children in the public school system, Boffy said.

Hill, whose district also includes East Baton Rouge Parish, pointed to that district as a model for its integration of choices for parents: magnet programs, traditional schools and charters.

Hill also credited the EBR district for involving the community in its plan to improve schools and the removal of 12 failing schools from the state’s list of academically unacceptable schools.

While two of the proposed Type 1 charter schools in Lafayette Parish could be built in north Lafayette — where two of the district’s F-rated schools are located — another K-8 school set to open in August, as well as a high school set for a 2017 opening, are planned for Youngsville.

Youngsville Mayor Wilson Viator said two schools in his city are A-rated and the third is B-rated and all three are overcrowded. He said new schools are needed and he asked if charters were the “route to go” to get them built.

Traditionally, charters have been the answer to address failing schools or districts, but they’re also a “creative” and “valid” way to “solve other problems in a community,” Boffy told Viator.

Beebe asked Viator why he would want charter schools, if his schools weren’t “broken,” because the charter operators send local and state dollars out of state.

“As taxpayers we have a responsibility to our children. We need to educate our children,” she said.

Hill advised that though the charter management company will build its own schools, those schools remain the property of the company — even if the charter is revoked.

“If (the) district says they haven’t met the standards ... guess what: you’re still out a building,” Hill said.