After a pivotal vote in the legislature, Louisiana is now set to become the first state to extend school choice to all students trapped in failing public schools. Education reformers just have to wait for Gov. Bobby Jindal's signature.
Today, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 61, known as the Louisiana Public School Choice Act. If signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal, the bill would allow parents of students in schools graded "D" or "F"to enroll their child in any public school that is graded "C" or above, beginning in the 2014–2015 school year. Parents throughout the state would no longer be limited by arbitrary school district lines that force their children to attend failing schools.
Louisiana has already made a name for itself as the Silicon Valley of education reform with the state's Recovery School District (RSD)—the first all-charter school district in the nation, where kids enroll in the public charter school of their choice. Signing Senate Bill 61 into law would further move the needle for school choice, making Louisiana the first state to enact a statewide open enrollment policy.
In 2003 then-Governor Kathleen Blanco signed Act 9 into law, giving the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) the legal authority to take over failing schools and place them in the newly created state-run Recovery School District. After Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the state in 2005, the threshold for what constituted a "failing school" was lowered, giving BESE even greater jurisdiction to move more failing schools into the RSD.
New Orleans Parish was the district most impacted by the new law, and 114 chronically low-performing schools were shifted into the RSD to be taken over by non-profit and charter school providers. Only 17 schools remained under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board—an education authority overseeing abysmally underperforming schools and suffering from a long record of fraud and corruption that yielded several FBI criminal indictments.
Since then, the Orleans Parish School Board has reduced the number of employees in its central office from 1,300 before hurricane Katrina to only 60, allowing more money to flow directly to schools.
New Orleans now has the largest concentration of charter school students in the nation: Over 90 percent of students attend a public charter school of their choice. And as of 2013, New Orleans implemented citywide open enrollment for both traditional public and charter schools operating under the RSD and Orleans Parish School Board using a single computerized system called OneApp.
The district has shown tremendous gains in academic performance and the percentage of students enrolled in "F" schools has improved from nearly 75 percent in the 2004-2005 school year to only 2 percent this past school year.
Just last week, the RSD closed the last traditional public school under its jurisdiction, making it the first all-charter district in the nation. That means Louisiana is the first state to have a school district with open enrollment where money follows the children to the schools of their choice, and schools have complete autonomy over how they operate. In exchange, schools are accountable to the needs of students and parents.
Signing the Louisiana Public School Choice Act into law would allow traditional public schools to have the same open enrollment policies as public charter schools. Also, state and federal dollars would follow eligible students to the school system that they choose, creating an incentive for schools to attract these students and the money following them.
Louisiana has been a national leader for school choice, and the academic results in places like New Orleans have proven that these policies work. If Senate Bill 61 is signed into law—which seems very likely, given Jindal's support for the issue—it will further expand options for children and families and empower parents to choose the educational experience that best suits their children's needs.