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Einstein’s dispute over busing students is part of the charter conundrum: choice vs. autonomy

When Einstein Charter Schools was cited last month for failing to provide busing for its elementary students, Nikisha Bartholomew wasn’t surprised.

In 2015, she and other parents were told that if they couldn’t get their children to and from school on their own, they had to put them on a city bus.

“We had no choice but to pull our kids,” she said.

She transferred her three children — who were then in second, fourth and fifth grades — to a poorer performing school that did provide busing.

Einstein now has new charter agreements with the Orleans Parish School Board for its four schools. Those agreements require Einstein to provide yellow bus or van service to students in sixth grade and under if they live more than a mile from school.

In September, the Orleans Parish school district cited Einstein for failing to provide busing and ordered it to bus kids by the week after Thanksgiving.

Einstein’s board responded by authorizing its CEO to take legal action against the school district.

This could be a test for the Orleans Parish School Board. As more charter schools shift to its oversight, the district has expanded the office that monitors them, and it has adopted a more formal system of warning them when they don’t follow the rules.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, said this could be a year of growing pains.

“Now, with the return of all schools to Orleans, we’re trying to figure out which are the policies, from either authorizer, that best serve kids,” she said.

A few years ago, only the state-run Recovery School District required charters to bus children. Now the Orleans Parish School Board requires it for any charter that admits students from across in the city.

Transportation is a “tension point,” Shirley said, between parental choice and charter autonomy.

Einstein agrees to provide busing

In 2013, Einstein took over Intercultural Charter School, a failing charter. It was funded by a $1 million federal grant designed to help high-performing charter schools, like the B-rated Einstein, expand.

Bartholomew’s three children attended Intercultural. She said she asked a lot of questions about transportation when she heard Einstein would take it over because she knew Einstein didn’t run buses at its original Village de L’est campus.

The takeover grant was administered by New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that funds charter school initiatives.

Einstein didn’t plan to provide busing. But New Schools for New Orleans offered $800,000 to pay for it, so the charter group agreed to bus Intercultural students who remained after the takeover.

At the time, Einstein estimated busing students to the school would cost $600,000 a year. About 263 of the 375 students at Intercultural stayed.

Bartholomew said her children were bused for the first two years after Einstein took over Intercultural, from the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2015.

“I was under the impression it would stay that way, and it didn’t,” she said. “In the spring of 2015, they sent a letter home saying, ‘We’re not doing buses anymore.’”

Instead, she was offered tokens for public transit.

She said she wondered at the time, “What am I supposed to do with bus tokens? Put my kids on a public bus?” She was especially worried about her youngest child, who would enter second grade that fall.

Bartholomew said Einstein leaders told her she would get bus tokens too so she could ride with them. But her work schedule wouldn’t allow her to ride the bus four times a day to escort her children.

The lack of transportation effectively pushed her out, she said. She believes that happened to other families who had remained at the school after Einstein took it over.

Patrick Dobard was in charge of the Recovery School District when Einstein took over Intercultural; he’s now CEO of New Schools for New Orleans.

The group “has always believed in access for families, so we funded the transportation for them early on,” Dobard said.

That money was given to Einstein, he said, with the expectation that it would continue to bus children after the grant expired.

Einstein still offers tokens, according to parents who complained at a meeting in August, a few weeks before the school district sent its warning.

School autonomy vs. parental choice

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. They get to choose what and how they teach as long as they meet certain academic, financial and operational standards.

Busing was a condition of the charter renewals for Einstein’s schools, three of which have students in grades six and below. District policy requires busing too.

But the policy also gives charters “complete autonomy over all areas of school operation as set forth in each school’s Operating Agreement, as long as such operations are in compliance with all applicable federal, state, and municipal laws and regulations.”

That includes budgeting, contracts and “management of transportation at the school site or operator level.”

Busing can be expensive. In 2012-13, some schools in New Orleans spent more than 15 percent of their annual budgets on transportation.

“When you’re a charter, you value your autonomy, the ability to make decisions inside your building and as close to kids as possible,” Shirley said. “That means all the things that make your school function.”

On the other side is parents’ choice — a term often used by charter school proponents.

Families look for many services when choosing a school, such as extended care, extracurricular activities and transportation, she said.

“If you’re not providing [busing], does that mean you’re writing off certain families?” she asked.

Shirley said her charter school association frames autonomy not as “who you serve, but how you serve them.”

That means charters make decisions on issues such as curriculum, hiring, and the academic calendar, but they don’t decide who is allowed to attend.

State law requires school districts to provide transportation, although they can ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for an exception. However, those rules apply to traditional school districts, not charters, according to Kevin Calbert, a spokesman for the state board of education.

Lee Reid, Einstein’s attorney, declined to explain why the charter group doesn’t believe it is obligated to provide busing.

“We are still in the process of evaluating Einstein’s next legal steps,” he said by email.

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