Louisiana leads the way on charter schools: Mary Landrieu

May 29, 2012

If you were a student attending a public school in New Orleans before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, chances were very high that your school was failing you. A year before the hurricanes and the great flood that followed, 62 percent of public schools were considered failing, and Orleans Parish was the lowest performing school district in the state.
But with the devastation of the storms came an opportunity to build a new New Orleans school system. We took that opportunity by dramatically expanding the nascent public charter school movement, working with charter operators to turn all failing public schools into quality public charters and give students a chance for a quality education. Students like Jade, a third-grader at the time of the storms who lost her father when the floodwaters reached the roof of their home.
Jade and her family continue to pick up the pieces after the trauma they endured, but despite these hardships Jade is now thriving academically as an honors student at Warren Easton Charter High School. Throughout New Orleans and the region, there are thousands of students just like Jade whose futures are brighter because of the transformative impact of high-quality public charter schools. In fact, the percentage of failing schools in Orleans Parish has fallen from 62 percent to 17 percent, a staggering achievement that has made New Orleans a prime national example for the success of the public charter school movement.
As co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Public Charter School Caucus, I am mindful of models like these and will continue to push for legislation and funding to continue the growth of high-quality charters. Charter schools provide quality options for families that are not financially able to live in areas with a robust public education system or pay the high tuition for private schools.
Despite some misunderstanding and misinformation about public charter schools, they are tuition-free, serve children with special needs and most are open to all students, just like traditional public schools. However, charters differ from traditional public schools in that they work under a more innovative, entrepreneurial model with more control at the school level over teacher recruitment and compensation, curriculum and school hours. Public charters not only give our principals and teachers the freedom to be great, they hold them accountable for achieving greatness. If public charter schools do not successfully serve their students, their charter is revoked and a new leadership team established.
Twenty years ago, Minnesota was operating a handful of the first public charter schools in America. Today, we have more than 5,200 public charter schools across the country, accounting for 5.4 percent of the total public school enrollment in the 2010 school year. During the last five years, public charter schools have grown by an estimated 76 percent, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That is a clear indication of their value to the families and communities they serve.
Despite the transformational impact of public charter schools, they are not a silver bullet. To be successful, public charters must have strong oversight and talented, visionary leadership. Both the students and faculty must be held to the highest standards and operate under the belief that all children — no matter their disadvantages or challenges — can succeed academically.
Many successful charters also create a unique culture by focusing on science and math education, language or performing arts. These are factors that have achieved success and must be central as public charters continue to grow — expansion must never come at the expense of quality. If we are smart about reform, we can apply these community by community, strengthening our national education system.
Like Jade in New Orleans, children around the country need and deserve the chance for a quality education. Not only is this the right thing to do for our children, the health and prosperity of our country depends on the next generation having the necessary education and skills to meet future challenges and compete in the global economy.