BESE committee advances two applications
After about 90 minutes of testimony on the merits and faults of charter schools proposed in Lafayette Parish at a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education committee meeting Tuesday in Baton Rouge, the panel gave the green light for the schools, with a final decision scheduled for BESE’s Wednesday meeting.
Board members voted 8-2 during the school innovation and turnaround committee meeting in support of charter school applications from Lafayette Charter Foundation in partnership with Charter Schools USA to open two K-8 charter schools in August and a high school in 2017, and for Louisiana Achievement Charter Academies in partnership with National Heritage Academies to open one school in August and another in 2015.
The Lafayette Parish School Board rejected both groups’ applications last month to operate charter schools in the parish. The rejection enabled the groups to apply for authorization from BESE to operate in the parish as Type 2 charters with oversight by the state.
Charter schools are independent public schools that receive public funding.
If BESE members hold their same votes Wednesday, the schools will be the first charter schools in the parish not operated by the School Board.
The School Board previously operated Charter High School, a self-paced educational program for students.
On Tuesday, about a dozen commenters voiced support of the Lafayette proposals, while at least 16 people spoke out against them.
Some speakers criticized the lack of planned transportation for students, a situation that limits at-risk students’ access to the charter schools, in addition to the fact that at least two of the schools — those proposed by Charter Schools USA — are planned for upper-income neighborhood developments in Youngsville and in north Lafayette Parish.
“While north Lafayette has a high population of students living in poverty, there are at-risk children and pockets of poverty in the Youngsville and Broussard areas,” said Mary Louella Cook, president of the Lafayette Charter Foundation.
“It is our belief that if we do not step in now and assist the Lafayette Parish School Board …that each year these challenges are not addressed, we lose a population of students who will never meet their educational potentials.”
Shane Riddle, a volunteer with New Hope Community Development Association, asked the committee to push the charters to add transportation so at-risk students would have the option to attend the schools.
The charter schools will have to take steps to ensure they’re serving at-risk populations as mandated by law, state Superintendent of Education John White said.
BESE members Lottie Beebe and Carolyn Hill cast the two votes against the charter school applications. Beebe said the state board should stand by the local board’s decision.
“What you’re doing now is working. Why would you want to bring in charter schools?” Hill asked Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper.
Hill’s district includes part of north Lafayette Parish.
The proposals offer new schools — helping fill a major need to keep up with growth in south Lafayette Parish, said Youngsville Mayor Wilson Viator and Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais.
Lafayette Parish School Board member Rae Trahan said the local board is taking steps to respond to the growth and will discuss potential new school construction at an upcoming retreat.
Neither Youngsville schools nor the district could be labeled as low-performing, Trahan said.
“Forgive me if I am confused, but I always thought that the concept of charter schools was to address low-performing districts,” she said. “How can BESE want to come into Lafayette and supersede what the local government has decided?”
A parent group, Swamp BESE, discussed its concerns about irregularities in the review process and questioned the experience of one company that reviewed one of the applications.
White defended the process and added that the reviewer has 10 years of experience, including history with a leading charter school authorizer.
Cooper closed out the public comment portion of the meeting, saying the charters are an avenue for the district to address its growth because chances of a passing a tax are slim. He said the charters also are needed in north Lafayette to help transition low-performing schools into preschool through eighth-grade schools, which will provide consistency for at-risk students in those neighborhoods.
“It’s not about anything other than our children, and right now I’ve got 31 percent of them dropping out. I’m not just taking a chance on a whim. We’ve got to (do) something that’s proven,” Cooper said.
Cooper grew frustrated as he corrected statements made by other commenters and said: “When people don’t like stuff, they just lie. Absolutely, that is what happens. We need to pay attention to the truth: 31 percent of our children are not getting a quality education.”
Later, Cooper said his comment referred to a few whom he said misled BESE members on issues such as his reasons for supporting the schools.
In the end, parents are the ones who will decide the charter schools’ fate, said BESE member Holly Boffy, whose district includes Lafayette Parish.
“The people will speak when they decide whether or not they want their children in charter schools,” Boffy said.