The Business of Charter Schools
A post-Katrina boom has changed the way children in Southeast Louisiana are educated.
Since Hurricane Katrina — a starting point for a lot of things in New Orleans — charter schools have exploded throughout the city, popping up in one neighborhood after the next.
Essentially public schools that are independently run, charter schools are granted more flexibility in terms of operations but are held to different accountability and benchmark levels. The term “charter” refers to the terms that each school agrees to in their performance contract, which details the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals and methods of assessment.
In the broadest sense, charter schools are really public schools that are chosen, meaning that parents choose a particular school for their children other than just attending the school in the neighborhood.
According to the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, charter schools operate with freedom from some of the regulations that are imposed upon local district schools. They are accountable for the same academic results as traditional district schools, and for upholding the promises made in their charters. Additionally, these schools must demonstrate performance in academic achievement, financial management and organizational stability. If a charter school does not meet performance goals, it may be closed.
As a public school, charters do not charge fees for attendance; instead, each is funded according to enrollment levels and receives public funds on a per-pupil basis. Charters are entitled to federal categorical funding for which their students are eligible, such as Title I and special education money.
“Before Katrina, there were a handful of charter schools in Orleans Parish, and it has grown and mushroomed from there,” says Ken Ducote, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools (GNOCCS). “At first there were regular charter schools, then the state had a few school takeovers that were faltering and they chartered those.”
Ducote says that Greater New Orleans schools were struggling with a lot of confusion pre-Katrina.
“There were 12 superintendents, no consistency and the decisions being made were moving further away from the school,” he said.
“After Katrina…all of the political indications pointed to the schools not reopening anytime soon, so school leaders got together and got organized and utilized the charter system to rebuild the schools and the community,” he says. “Chartering was a way to get things to happen in a timely fashion so the students could get back to school.”
Since charter schools are public schools, they receive their funding through the Minimum Foundation program in the same way the state distributes public funds to all kindergarten through 12th grade public school programs, on a per-student basis. Also, like other public schools in Louisiana, charter schools must comply with state laws governing public entities, including the Code of Ethics, Open Meetings Law, Local Government Budget Act, Public Records Act and Public Bid Law.
Charter schools must also comply with policies set by their authorizer. Like other public schools in Louisiana, charter schools receive letter grades through the state accountability system and take the same state tests. Unlike other public schools, however, a charter school may be closed by its authorizers if it does not meet its academic, financial and operational obligations by the end of its charter contract (usually five years).
“Charters have the ability to be more specialized; for example a school can focus on STEM, foreign languages, international business, public service or leadership,” Ducote says. “There is a parish in Louisiana that has a charter school specifically for students with dyslexia. Charter schools have the ability to look at the underserved community and help them out through a new, fresh approach. There is autonomy in the curriculum.”
"There are good school choices for parents to send their kids to in New Orleans, and it will just continue to get better."
Kathy Reidlinger, CEO of Lusher Charter School
Kathy Reidlinger, CEO of Lusher Charter School, says there are no public schools in New Orleans any more, only charter schools.
“After Katrina, little by little, all the schools converted to the charter system,” she said. “Charter schools do not always have a traditional office staff, they operate under new policies to meet the needs of their students. Most have their own nonprofit boards that govern.”
The change, she says, has been a positive one.
“Since the implementation of charter schools, we are seeing more public and community involvement in schools,” she said. “Achievement test scores are up and there is more accountability because of the governing board. There are good school choices for parents to send their kids to in New Orleans, and it will just continue to get better. New Orleans has done a remarkable job of creating places for students to go to school, and the momentum will keep going to continue to bring quality education to the students of our city.”
While tuition is not charged to attend a charter school, parents may be asked to pay for school uniforms, school supplies, extracurricular activities, enrichment or supplemental fees and before and after school care.
“For us, the biggest reason we became a charter was as a response to an emergency — Katrina — and knowing we would not reopen if we did not do something,” says Ben Franklin High School Administrative Director Lynn Jenkins. “As far as schools go, a one-size-fits-all model was not working in this city anymore and charters were the way to go to help the students. Now we have the ability to have niches and to better serve the community.”
Jenkins adds that charter schools provide more transparency in the education system and more accountability.
“This is a matter of necessity and allows us to focus without all the bureaucracy,” she says. “It’s hard work to become a charter school. It’s a business and you have to pay attention to budgets and payroll and manage the federal money that is received, as well as have a CFO on staff. You always have to know what is going on in the school on the business side and be accountable. But, we are still governed by state laws and there are layers of rules and regulations that have to be followed to maintain our charter. Overall, we feel a commitment to the community and we believe that we can help any student that comes in, and meets our criteria, to find a place in our school.”
HOW TO Start a Charter School
In Louisiana, charter schools may be approved by local school boards or the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
The Louisiana Department of Education publishes on its website a set of common eligibility requirements that charter school applicants must complete in order to be considered for opening a charter school in the state, along with the common charter school application. Local school boards may elect to impose additional eligibility requirements, which must be published on their websites.
Charter school applicants may submit their application to one or more authorizers.
For more information on the charter application process and relevant deadlines, please visit the Louisiana Department of Education website at louisianabelieves.com.
NUMBERS: Who Attends Charters in Louisiana?
Charter school students have similar demographic characteristics to students in all public schools in Louisiana, but charter schools serve a larger percentage of economically disadvantaged students and black students.
Economically Special Ed English Learners
Charters 78% 11% 6%
State 69% 13% <5%
Asian Black Hispanic White Multiracial
Charters 1% 72% 5% 20% 1%
State 1% 44% 6% 45% 2%
*Data is based on 2015 student enrollment counts from the Louisiana Department of Education.