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Charter networks tread upon ‘Parent Choice’

21st January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Harden
Contributing Writer

A central premise for pro-charter reformers is that by turning schools into businesses, the free market rules and thus parents have ultimate choice as consumers.

The words “parental choice” is used almost ad-nauseum as one of the brightest lights of the New Orleans experiment – a city in which approximately 90 percent of public school students attend charter schools.

But for parents who decide after October 1 that the current Recovery School District (RSD) school their child is attending is not the right fit, they don’t really have much of a choice.

They can vote with their feet – until October 1.

Last year, the date before which parents could transfer their students was Feb 1. This year, it was moved to October 1. Those are also the two dates for which students are counted and per-pupil funding amounts are determined.

The official RSD policy states that after Oct. 1, if a parent wants to move their kid, the student’s “hardship” – health, safety or childcare — must be proven.

The student’s current school must agree that the student faces a hardship, and then the RSD must approve the transfer.

If the school doesn’t believe the student has a valid reason to leave they don’t have to concede hardship to the RSD.

When she wanted to transfer her daughter who was being bullied and had been physically injured, parent Bianca Perry was told that her only options were to move her daughter to a different parish or a different state.

For Perry, trying to communicate to the school and the RSD that she feared for her daughter’s life and needed to transfer her to a different school – was a long, arduous, confusing, and frustrating process. But prior to Oct. 1, it would have been a relatively easy and fast process.

Perry’s hardship application was denied, and the reasons she said she was given were varied and never made any sense. Perry said that the October 1 date wasn’t even brought to her attention until well into the fight to get her daughter out.

Perry’s daughter, a 10th-grader at Lake Area High School, was involved in a fight with a group of girls in November – she ended up with a busted lip, a knot on her head, and getting put out.

At the expulsion hearing it was determined that Perry’s daughter didn’t start the fight, and she was permitted to go back to school, Perry said.

But both Perry and her daughter decided it would be best to switch schools. The girls weren’t leaving her daughter alone. Perry said her daughter was doing everything she was supposed to – walking away, reporting the bullying. But things weren’t getting better. And Perry didn’t feel that her daughter was safe.

Perry even found a school with an available seat and a principal that was happy to take her daughter – a bright student who gets good grades and (ordinarily) stays away from trouble.

Still, Perry was told her daughter could not transfer.

“It’s like their way or no way,” she said. “You don’t have a choice. You don’t have a say so about leaving, and it’s not right.”

In a recent OpEd, Caroline Roemer Shirley, Executive Director, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, wrote that,

“Whether charter, voucher, traditional, private, online or homeschooled, all these choices add up to two words: Parent Power. . . If a charter school does not meet parents’ expectations, they will choose to send their child to a different school.”

But this was not Perry’s experience: Lake Area did not meet her expectations for dealing with the bullying, and when she told them she wanted to send her child to a different school – and jumped through all the hardship application hoops – she was denied.

The October 1 policy is new this year to limit student movement for a variety of reasons, according to officials.

Roemer Shirley said that parameters were deemed necessary after a period of time when students moved frequently for any given reason.

Creating a set of policies and practices to restrict movement during the year was in part to address the reports of schools “counseling” or pushing out students they didn’t want, and unfairly selecting the students they did want, Roemer Shirley said. Having no parameters resulted in too much turmoil, she said.

On their own, charter operators could not be trusted to transparently maintain and practice fair enrollment policies.

Roemer Shirley noted said that in addition to trying to create a more transparent and consistent system for transfers, too much movement, especially mid-year, is also problematic for determining funding amounts and thus the school’s operational structure.

“Parents have choice,” she said, “but it may not be immediate.”

Gabriela Fighetti, executive director of enrollment for the RSD, confirmed that the change in policy was due to a need to prevent schools from unethically pushing kids out and to the difficulties created because of funding model.

In addition, Fighetti pointed to research that movement can have a negative impact on academic performance, and to the difficulty both the students and the schools have in changing school “culture.”

Fighetti said the RSD works with the families and the schools to reach a solution, and that during the first 10 weeks of the school year – before Oct. 1 – there is “huge flexibility” for parents to make changes.

Having procedures and processes to which families must adhere doesn’t negate choice, she said.

This year, a total of 3,075 students transferred to a different school between July and September 30, according to the RSD. To date, the RSD has received a total of 177 requests for transfer, and has approved 86 (48.6%) of them. Fourteen (7.9%) of the requests received are currently being reviewed with schools and families.

Sametta Brown, the CEO of New Beginnings, the operator of Lake Area, said that she thoroughly analyzed the situation, and determined that Perry’s daughter was safe at the school, and that the bullying issues were not taking place during school hours and on school grounds, and were primarily isolated to social media.

Brown said that student safety at school is a very serious concern, but that it was decided that Perry’s daughter was not unsafe, there was no hardship evident, and that the school in no way had been negligent.

“My first reaction is—what can I do to make sure she is safe and solve the conflict. We never say a student can’t go,” Brown said. “We won’t block them.”

It is then the RSD that must make the final determination whether a student will be allowed to transfer, not the school, Brown said.

The initial fight in which Perry said her daughter was attacked, however, did happen at school during school hours. But despite Perry’s continued attempts to move her daughter, she continued to be told that she couldn’t.

“I was furious,” Perry said, “I had to remain calm and keep my composure as an adult. I’m trying to put my child in a better place and you try to tell me it’s her fault. It’s not your child, it’s mine. How dare you tell me what to think.”

Roemer Shirley acknowledged that creating best enrollment policies and practices continues to be a work in progress. She also identified what continues to be one of the weakest areas for the RSD and the charter schools: genuine and effective communication with parents.

Better communicating to parents what the policies are and why, and what their enrollment rights are, “is work that has to be continued by governing entities,” she said. “We’ve come a long way, but it is wrong to claim victory.”

To some observers, like The Brookings Institute, there is a measurable victory for parental empowerment. The think tank recently released their results of their latest “Education Choice and Competition Index.” According to Brookings, the RSD ranks first in the entire nation for school choice.

But education advocate Karran Harper Royal sees it differently.

“I totally disagree with their definition of choice. It doesn’t look at the quality of options or what it means to navigate the options.”

And with 90 percent of the city’s public schools now charters, “How is that a choice if you don’t want a charter school?,” Harper Royal asked. “If they kept the neighborhood schools and then opened some charters, people would have a choice.”

To Harper Royal, real choice would mean that there would be high-quality and diverse choices accessible to every part of the city, including isolated regions like eastern New Orleans.

“Where I hold the Louisiana Department of Education fully responsible for screwing up education in New Orleans post-Katrina is that they should have looked at the landscape and actively sought operators of different types of schools instead of loading us up with charters at any cost.”

With a dearth of information on the front end, Harper Royal said she encounters many parents who aren’t happy with schools once the year is well underway. For parents of kids with special needs, they may not be getting the quality of services as required by law. Or, a parent would have no way of knowing beforehand – that high school students would be forced to walk on a taped line.

Fighetti and Roemer-Shirley argue that parents have an abundance of choice, but that it works best within specified parameters and with internal controls in place.

Perry just wants her daughter at a school where she is safe. After months battling, and finding different people at the school to work with, Perry said as of now, it looks like her daughter will be able to make the move.

Harper Royal argues that the Oct. 1 policy favors the schools over the students and parents.

You can’t have it both ways, Harper Royal said. “If choice is valued, you don’t stop parents from moving their kids,” she said. “The RSD has no business in stopping parents from exercising their choices – no matter when it is in the school year.”

This article originally published in the January 20, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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