Skeptics skewer RSD, charters at BR luncheon forum

A panel composed of mostly skeptics on Thursday questioned the fairness, effectiveness and motives of those behind Louisiana’s nearly decade-long practice of taking over and converting low-performing public schools into charter schools.

“We’re asking charter schools to start at the 20-yard line, while traditional public schools have to start at the back of the end zone,” said Belinda Davis, president of the group One Community, One School District, which was formed in 2012 to fight the efforts of southeast Baton Rouge to form its own school district.

“The intent of the law was to be temporary,” said Carolyn Hill, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary. “Now, it’s permanent.”

Hill represents District 8, which has several Baton Rouge schools that have been taken over. She was one of the panelists speaking at a luncheon meeting at Drusilla Place Restaurant in Baton Rouge attended by about 40 people.

Tom Aswell, who runs the political blog Louisiana Voice, told the group that Louisiana is “keeping the kids in a cycle of failure.”

The only person present to defend the state’s position was Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent for external affairs for the Recovery School District.

The RSD has taken over dozens of low-performing schools in Louisiana since 2004, particularly in New Orleans. Peterson said the agency has developed a record of success, with big improvements in student achievement over that time.

“While I don’t see them as great successes, I see them as great progress,” he said.

Peterson also answered specific criticisms leveled by the rest of the panel, which was organized by a new nonpartisan Baton Rouge-based political organization, Leaders With Vision.

“I think people are taking some things out of context and trying to paint us as nefarious characters,” he said.

Jean Armstrong, president of Leaders With Vision, defended the panel’s composition, saying she tried to no avail to get other state leaders to sit on the panel.

RSD is identified with charter schools, which are public schools run privately, thanks to their heavy concentration in New Orleans.

The state in August approved 14 groups to start new charter schools in Baton Rouge in the coming years.

Some of the charters are to be located on the seven school campuses the RSD runs in north Baton Rouge. The schools formerly were part of the East Baton Rouge Parish public school system.

Peterson said charter schools afford parents greater choice and school leaders greater autonomy, yet remain answerable to the general public.

“Charter schools give us an opportunity to enact those values so that we have better outcomes for kids,” he said.

A wide range of criticisms was leveled at the RSD Thursday.

Davis, the president of the One Community, One School District group, said charters have an unfair financial advantage that serves to shortchange students in traditional public schools.

She noted charter schools get the average per-pupil funding of the traditional school districts they’re located in, which factors in more money designated for gifted and special education students, despite often having fewer of both enrolled.

Davis also said traditional school districts that lose students to charters, and therefore money, can’t cut expenses proportionately because students leave in small numbers from many campuses. She said that prevents schools that are affected from easily letting go of teachers or closing schools.

Davis also spoke at length about how charter schools are not required by law to pay anything for the millions of dollars in “legacy costs” generated by medical insurance accumulated by retirees of traditional school districts.

Peterson said charter schools pay for legacy costs in New Orleans. He said the RSD and the parish school system have an agreement to share such costs in Baton Rouge, but have yet to settle on a formula.

Davis criticized state leaders for not requiring such cost-sharing long ago. She said children are suffering the longer it takes to settle the issue.

“That is $1 million a year that has not been going to the children in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system,” she said.

Craig Freeman, a parish School Board member who also sat on the panel, said the school system has approved several charter schools, but questioned whether groups coming to Baton Rouge from far away can improve on what the school system is doing already.

“It’s easy to make great bread in your store,” Freeman said “Can you make great bread 1,600 miles away?”

Editor’s note: This story was modified on Sept. 23, 2013, to correct a misquote of Dana Peterson. The Advocate regrets the error.