Waguespack: Some good news

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Doesn’t it seem like we are constantly being reminded lately of Louisiana’s many challenges?

Earlier this year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform ranked our legal climate dead last among states. They cited our legal policies, ethics, organizational structure and judicial elections as causes, as well as the impact it all has on our insurance rates and job creation. Last week, the U.S. News and World Report released its annual ranking of the states and, you guessed it, we came in last. Factors cited were our low scores in categories such as health care, education, economy, opportunity, infrastructure, crime, fiscal stability and quality of life.

“LCI"

Our elected leaders are battling the latest version of the fiscal cliff while many communities across our state are battling the impacts of a weak economy on working families. A recent LSU survey revealed that an overwhelming majority of Louisianans have lost trust in elected officials and their ability to work together to solve the state’s challenges. Heck, even the owner of our beloved New Orleans Saints, Tom Benson, recently passed away at the age of 90.

However, slipping through the cracks of this latest barrage of negative information, some good news came out last week that will make a monumental difference for many families in our state.

The Louisiana Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling, declaring what many thought was, quite frankly, already well established: that charter schools are indeed public schools. As a result, the court affirmed that the state education funding formula (known as the MFP) can be used to educate public school students attending public charter schools. The ruling is a huge relief to the thousands of students choosing to attend local public charter schools across Louisiana and a tremendous burden off the backs of those parents doing everything they can to put their children in a learning environment that meets their needs.

This ruling makes so much sense. It underscores the Legislature’s intent in crafting how we fund public education – that the dollars should follow the child. The court should be commended for making the right decision in this case.

Plaintiffs argued that the Constitution required MFP dollars to only go directly to the traditional parish and city school systems, regardless of what public charter school was physically educating the public student attached to the funding. The court, in its ruling, seemed to sense the inequity this would cause and stated:

“We disagree with the appellate court’s ruling and find the New Type 2 charter schools are in fact public schools. While there is no definition of “public elementary and secondary schools” in the constitution, our legislature has expressed that charter schools are “independent public school[s].” La.R.S. 17:3973(2)(a). We agree with defendants’ contention that affirming the court of appeal’s rationale, i.e., denying MFP funding because the school is not under the jurisdiction of a parish or city school board, could potentially have adverse consequences to other charter schools, not just New Type 2 charter schools. To interpret La. Const. art. VIII, § 13(B), in the manner the plaintiffs propose would lead to absurd consequences, because some public schools would be funded by the MFP but other public schools would not.”

While this ruling is a huge victory for parents across the state, it may not even be on your radar. Perhaps you don’t have children in a public charter school, and you don’t really think this type of ruling applies to you. I would argue everyone in Louisiana benefits from a ruling like this, not just the 16,000 students that had their funding threatened by this suit.

First, fair is fair. When parents and children choose to attend a school of choice, that is a decision that should be supported by the state. Those parents pay taxes just like everyone else. There is no need to penalize them because they seek a better future for their children.

Second, empowering parents is contagious. This ruling sends a signal to parents across Louisiana that the laws of this land and the members of the Supreme Court want them to be involved parents and will support them in their efforts. As other families see the liberating power of choice and mobility in many Louisiana communities, a new era of empowerment will hopefully take place.

Third, parents remaining in traditional public schools will benefit also. Every parent deserves to know they also have the power to choose a good schooling option for their child and every school will be incentivized to sharpen their approach to delivering a quality educational product if they know it, too. Competition is good for traditional markets and it can help elevate educational quality.

Fourth, public services are not the same as public buildings. As technology changes, so does our traditional view of certain public services. Public utilities are not always government-owned entities; in many cases, they are private entities regulated by public bodies. The same goes for public transportation and public housing, where infrastructure and facilities themselves are many times privately owned but publicly regulated as they deliver a public service. Education is slowly learning to live by the same modern consumer expectations as many other public services, and this technological evolution will provide benefits to families for years to come.

Louisiana has many strong laws in place to help provide accountable educational choice for parents. I hope our legislators in the coming weeks will stand strong and uphold our laws governing accountability. Many of these laws are nationally recognized as high-quality reforms that, if supported, will lead to improved outcomes for years to come. In this sense, we are a highly regarded national leader in this space. That’s more like it. It sure is nice to get some much-needed good reviews on something we do… hopefully, it is a trend of more to come.

Stephen Waguespack is president of LABI