Top charter-school advocate talks about changing attitudes here and Baton Rouge

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Researchers and reporters across the country are telling the world this month about the changes in New Orleans education since Hurricane Katrina, highlighting the unparalleled charter school expansion.

This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.

This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.

The Lens sat down recently to talk with Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. According to the mission of her organization, which is not part of government, it exists to “support, promote and advocate for the Louisiana charter school movement, increasing student access to high quality public schools statewide.” Roemer Shirley lives in New Orleans.

The Lens: Talk about the creation of the state accountability system and Recovery School District.

The third success is the level of involvement we have in public education that would not have been there otherwise. And I specifically point to the fact that all of these charters have nonprofit boards that are made up of people who are volunteering their time, many of whom may not be in education otherwise. That can be both good and bad, as you know.

What are the challenges that we still need to be overcome?

We’re still challenged to work with stakeholders — really parents, people who are making choices in public education — to fully understand how this is all working. I think there’s still a major challenge in how you pull the very people that we’re serving into the conversation. Again, to not only build an awareness with them, but to build a foundation in which those people feel like they have real input and some say in what’s happening.

A big piece of that is on the human-capital side and finding great principals and good teachers. But I do think for New Orleans, finding people that can do this very difficult work and who want to do it for the long term is going to be a big challenge.

While I still love the idea of people from different walks of life, volunteers, having ownership of a school and really feeling passionate about what happens in that school, we still have a lot of work to do around ensuring they understand what their roles and responsibilities are — and giving them the tools and the information they need to make really good decisions on behalf of kids and teachers and taxpayers. It’s their money.

We have a lot of work to do with wrap-around services. I think a lot of those folks on the front lines working with kids would say we’re dealing with a population of kids that need so many other things beyond learning how to read and write: mental health services, social services, all those things. So that wrap-around services piece, I think is still a missing piece.

The Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School board are two separate districts, both overseeing schools in the city. What do you think are the best elements of each?

What I think is unique about the Recovery School District is it’s an entity that is not intended to be forever. It makes some people upset when they hear ‘not meant to be forever.’ But it’s got a very specific mission: to improve schools.

And I think that creates a different pathway for making decisions and how you focus on things and how you do that work. I find the Recovery School District to be much more about problem solving and addressing issues and trying to figure out how to move us away from an issue to a solution.

That’s versus, unfortunately, what I find in traditional school boards: a lot more grown-ups and politics. I don’t want to pretend that there’s not politics in the RSD.

I think that some would say a negative on the Recovery School District is that same thing, that it’s not a politically elected body. People question where, at the end of the day, is the accountability to the public. I happen to disagree with that concern but that is a legitimate conversation that many people have.

On the Orleans Parish School Board side, it’s harder for me to pick out what’s awesome. I don’t pretend to be a big fan of the traditional school board system. I would say the fact that they now really have to think about what it would take for schools to choose to come back there, I find that to be a positive.

I said the Recovery School District isn’t meant to be around forever. But it has created something in which a school decides what makes sense for their school [regarding whether to leave the RSD and return to the OPSB]. And while some people feel hostile about that, I like that it sets a need for the district to take actions around the very things that caused schools to be less than successful. They need to think about that and change that.

What issues is LAPCS currently focused on?

Our mission is to create quality charter schools. I’m always quick to say I am not going to be the mafia for charter schools. I don’t want to create charter schools just to pat myself on the back that I see more school signs with the word ‘charter’ in it. That’s not the objective.

We work on the policy side, whether it’s through accountability or standards, or fighting off the tendencies of politicians to want to mandate on the front end and erode the autonomy of charters.

We like to help schools find good board members. So recruiting and then training those board members on what it means to be a charter board member, whether that’s public meeting law, public budget law, or the questions they should be having on their dashboard as it relates to the children.

The other piece of our work that we’re turning to is finance and operations. Nationally, you’ll hear people say that more charter schools actually are not as successful on their finance side as on their academic side. We’re trying to build out more programming that supports schools in understanding how to be the best stewards of taxpayer dollars.

While I keep hoping that that policy work will get easier with each passing year, I actually feel it’s getting more and more difficult politically as charter schools continue to grow. When I started the organization eight years ago, I think there were maybe 30 or 32 charters schools. And now we’re at about 140.

The association is statewide so our work is not limited to just one particular geographic region.

A lot of people used to feel less threatened by charter schools because it was all happening down there in New Orleans: ‘That’s a crazy place. Do what you need to do.’ But as charter schools grow in popularity outside New Orleans, that’s creating this tension point of, ‘Oh goodness, not in my backyard.’ For a lot of our legislators, their biggest employer in their legislative district usually is a school district. Charter schools are too often seen as a threat to that district rather than a tool that the district could use.

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