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Charter school association lays out terms of returning to OPSB

Charter school boards across the city have a Friday deadline to decide whether to back a petition, penned by the state charter school association, that outlines their terms for a system-wide switch to Orleans Parish School Board governance.

Though many charters governed by the Recovery School District share similar concerns about a switch – the big three being a loss of some money, a loss of independence and a lack of trust in the board – this document, if it gains traction, would mark the first time that charters have spoken collectively on the issue.

The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools first presented the petition to its membership in early September, Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley said, then sent it to the 55 charter schools in New Orleans that answer to the Recovery School District. Today is the deadline to sign the petition.

The organization is moving swiftly because RSD charters could find out as soon as next week, when the state releases school performance scores, if they are eligible to switch. Any charter that scores an 80 or better on a scale of 200, and has operated for at least five years, can make the move. Last year, eight high-performing schools were eligible, but they chose to stay put. This year, those eight and another six are expected to score high enough to switch.

Shirley said charter school officials are unhappy that the Orleans school board hasn’t addressed their concerns over governance, autonomy and funding. They want to see a clear plan for return rather than “lip service, saying you’re ready for your schools to return,” she said. “We mean a full-blown dialogue with the community, including the operators, on what that means to them.”

Many of those concerns are mentioned in the petition, titled “New Governance Guiding Principles.” Association officials said they’ll measure any proposal for Orleans Parish School Board governance according to these principles, which are “non-negotiable.”

Here are the basics:

Choice: Parents’ right to choice must be at the forefront of all decisions.

Autonomy: Schools must be allowed to keep their independent governing boards, make all personnel and budgeting decisions at the school level, and retain all of their federal funds. They also must retain the right to set their own curriculums.

Accountability: The board should set a high bar when it comes to academics, financial management and contractual obligations. If a school fails to meet those standards, there should be significant consequences, including closure and charter revocation. Politics can’t factor into the decisionmaking process when it comes to measuring school progress.

Transparency: It should be obvious how dollars are being spent. The board should also release data about each school’s performance beyond test scores, including other measures of academic improvement and information on which courses are offered.

Equity: The board should monitor special education, enrollment, expulsions and facilities. It should also equitably distribute special education funds so schools can address the needs of their student population.

Shirley said she hopes that the petition will spark positive conversations between the school board and charter operators. “I don’t want it to be like, you know, ‘Let’s go to war,’” she said, but at the same time, charters want more information than the school board has provided. “The community is ready to come to the table to talk about this.”

Kathleen Padian, deputy superintendent of charter schools for the Orleans Parish School Board, has talked to some charter school leaders about these issues. While Padian didn’t return phone calls requesting comment, she has said before that she has asked state education officials if some of the issues can be addressed by changing state policy.

Board members at one charter management organization, Crescent City Schools, have already discussed the guidelines. The board runs Akili Academy, a school that’s expected to meet legal requirements to switch to school board governance for the second year in row, as well as Harriet Tubman Charter School. Board members took up the petition at a Thursday night meeting.

“I think of it like apple pie and Coca-Cola: if you’re in this movement, you’re going to agree with these specifics,” board president J.P. Hymel said. “What we want to develop is what I call a list of terms, that says we might embrace returning to OPSB but to get to that process, here’s what we need.” Chief Executive Officer Kate Mehok called the measure “a good beginning.”

Soon after, the board unanimously endorsed the petition.

Correction: This story originally stated that the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools sent the petition to all charter schools in New Orleans, but it only sent the petition to RSD charters. The error has been corrected.

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