Thursday, June 18, 2009

A convergence of consequences

LFT President Steve Monaghan was pretty much wasting his breath this morning, when he warned the Senate Education Committee about the unintended consequences of unbridled charter school expansion.

The bill in question was HB 519 by Rep. Walt Leger of New Orleans, and it sailed through the committee with nary a dissenting vote. It was filed in response to new federal guidelines forbidding states that want certain grant money from imposing unreasonable caps on charter schools.

State law currently caps the number of charters at 70.

Supporters of the bill cited a new Stanford University study saying that Louisiana is one of a very few states in which some charter schools actually seem to outperform some traditional public schools. That, they said, proves that we should lift the cap and let the charters flow, even without the promise of federal grants.

Except that the Stanford study concluded that one of the virtues of Louisiana's charter school law is that it tightly controls the issuance of charters. Without what the study's author calls "quality control," that advantage is lost. It could be argued that Louisiana's charter school cap is indeed reasonable, and does not violate the federal regulation at all.

But when Monaghan spoke about unintended consequences, he was talking about more than federal guidelines. Check out this story by Advocate reporter Charles Lussiere, about the looming layoffs in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

The explosion of school takeovers in the capital city is squeezing teachers out, and not because they lack credentials or are not good at their craft. "The uncertainty, Lussiere writes, "stems from not knowing how many students will enroll in the Recovery School District (charter) schools versus those run by East Baton Rouge Parish public schools."

But couldn't the teachers about to be laid off apply for jobs in the new charter schools?

Well, yes. Except.

Except charter schools aren't required to participate in the state teachers' retirement system. Those who go to work in charter schools can be putting their retirement in jeopardy.

Except charter schools aren't required to provide health insurance for their employees. Or tenure, or any of the other academic freedom protections that most teachers enjoy.

So when Monaghan asked the committee to consider the unintended consequences of unbridled charter expansion, he had a point.

The point is this: before we radically expand the charter experiment, let's look at what happens as a result. Anticipate issues that might arise, and craft legislation to deal with them before they become serious problems.

That goes against the grain of ideologues who are bent on replacing public education with a patchwork system of semi-public, quasi-private enterprises that bring to mind the old axiom: Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

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