‘National School Choice Week’ Highlights Success Stories, Teachers Unions Remain Skeptical

As thousands of parents, students and policymakers converge across the country to mark “National School Choice Week,” a top industry representative expressed enthusiasm toward the possibility of joining forces with charter schools to further educational goals in Louisiana.

During his address to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) annual meeting earlier this month, Gov. Bobby Jindal called for new legislation that would allow for businesses to help shape the charter school curriculum and to integrate their expertise into the classroom experience.

“This new business-charter school partnership legislation will help feed the pipeline of qualified workers for Louisiana businesses while creating important career opportunities for students,” Jindal said in his talk. Ensuring that every Louisiana student has a great education is the critical foundation to helping our children pursue the career of their dreams.”

The Jindal plan, which is modeled after Florida’s “Charter Schools in the Workplace Initiative,” would create a framework for business groups to provide either land or educational facilities to the school in exchange for holding a minority of school board seats and a preferred enrollment policy for the children of company employees, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

Approximately 33,000 students attend 90 charter schools in Louisiana, according to government figures. Proponents claim they are less bureaucratic than conventional public schools and better suited to innovation. The institutions are built around three key principles that are described on the web site for the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools: 1) Choice 2) Flexibility 3) Accountability.

Meanwhile, the state’s teachers unions have expressed ambivalence in their public pronouncements aimed at measuring the performance of alternative educational centers. The Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), for instance, says that it supports the charter program but only in certain instances.

“We are concerned at the way charter schools are being implemented and held accountable especially when chartered by BESE [Board of Elementary and Secondary Education] and not the school district,” LAE has said.

Jindal’s proposal will come up for consideration when the state legislature reconvenes in April. Current plans call for 50 percent of a school’s enrollment capacity to be set aside for the children of employees working for a company that has entered into a partnership; a lottery would be held if the number of eligible children exceeds the number of available seats. Going forward, companies could help craft specialized curriculum such as information technology, telecommunications, automotive technology or any other field that intersects with workforce needs.

“What that governor has outlined here has enormous potential and I see it as a win-win both on the education side and for private companies,” Brigitte Nieland, a vice-president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), observed. “Once you have business people serving on the school board they can provide insight into how companies make certain decisions, while they in turn learn how the board works and how educational needs are addressed. There is a real opening here for a seamless partnership that makes way for internships and innovative curriculum that can help prepare students for the business world.”

However, Neiland also said additional details were needed before the program could advance legislatively. She recommended, for instance, that policymakers adjust Jindal’s proposal to allow for a “consortium” of business groups to join with a charter school in certain instances. Expenditures for new buildings and school property could be difficult for smaller outfits to absorb standing alone, Nieland cautioned.

Les Landon, Director of Public Relations for Louisiana Federation of Teachers, told The Pelican Institute that his organization has not taken an official stance on Jindal’s proposal, and that he could not comment on the merits until the bill is finalized.

“There’s a history here with legislation that’s troubling,” he said. “Announcements are made and then the legislation comes out looking nothing like what was proposed, so we really need to see the bill.”

The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have sharply criticized school choice initiatives such as tax credits and voucher programs, which are both operative in Louisiana.

Beginning in the 2009 tax year, deductions of up to $5,000 for school tuition, home education expenses and public school expenses were made available to residents. As the Pelican Institute previously reported, the Louisiana voucher program is restricted to students in New Orleans and remains limited in scope.

Proponents have argued that vouchers provide low-income families with an avenue out of failing educational systems, while the AFT, and other critics, view them as counterproductive policy measures that undermine the best interests of public school students.

“The main reason for this opposition is because public funding of private or religious education transfers precious tax dollars from public schools, which are free and open to all children…,” the AFT has explained.

Even so, school choice activists see momentum building at the national level for large scale reforms that include vouchers, charter schools, magnet schools, virtual education options, homeschooling, tax credit scholarships and opportunity scholarships. 150 organizations are expected to take part in commemoration exercises this week that highlight successful school choice initiatives.

“Over the past year, we’ve seen more interest and excitement over education reform than ever before,” said Kyle Olson, executive director of National School Choice Week. “That interest, excitement, and restlessness has been channeled into National School Choice Week, which will celebrate the fact that there are workable solutions to America’s education challenges — but only if elected officials summon the courage to fight for real reform.”

Kevin Mooney is the Investigative Reporter with The Pelican Institute. He can be reached at kmooney@pelicanpolicy.org