By: Chris Meyer

The Democratization of School Choice in Baton Rouge

In his inaugural plan Believe to Achieve: Educational Priorities, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Cade Brumley illustrated one of his core beliefs: “choice expands opportunities.” We couldn’t agree more. And Baton Rouge families agree as well.

School choice is on the rise in Baton Rouge, and not just for the wealthy or well-informed. A look at the recent release of enrollment data from October 2020 shows that families are increasingly choosing a school for their children versus waiting for an assignment from the local school district. Glancing behind the numbers, while enrollment in public schools is overall stable from last year, there is an enormous shift in where students attend public school. Enrollment in district-run, non-magnet schools is down 5 percent since last year and more than 15 percent over the last decade. Enrollment in public charter schools, which are open to any student and are non-selective, is up more than two and a half times over the last decade with nearly a quarter of all public school students in Baton Rouge now attending a public charter school.

Nationally, the pandemic has introduced a worrisome trend of some students not attending school in person or at all. Kindergarten enrollment is down across the country and averaging a seven percent decline in Louisiana. In Baton Rouge, this is especially an issue in district-run schools, where Kindergarten enrollment is down 10 percent. Conversely, Kindergarten enrollment has remained steady year over year within Baton Rouge’s public charter school sector – a promising sign given the circumstances other education sectors are facing at this difficult moment. The specific causes of this national trend may be difficult to pinpoint, but one hypothesis is that parents are responding to the woefully inadequate response of the district-run schools following the start of the pandemic lockdown in Spring 2020. Recall the divergent response between district-run and public charter schools. Charter schools were able to pivot rapidly to virtual learning and provide other meaningful services to families such as supplies and hot meals. The district, by contrast, conducted no meaningful virtual instruction for more than seven weeks and purchased shelf-ready “meals” like corned beef hash for students. No offense to canned corned beef hash, but I believe families, when given a choice of hot meals or canned goods, responsive virtual instruction or two anxiety-filled months of a wait-and-see approach, are voting with their feet and exercising school choice at increasingly high levels.

This has not always been the case in our community. Historically, privileged families have been better positioned to navigate the complexities of enrollment in high-quality schools. Whether it is the more than 25,000 students in our community enrolled in private schools or the thousands more who flee to Ascension, Central, Livingston or Zachary for school options, families with means are able to use their resources to seek out the highest quality school options. Even within the selective magnet schools, the disparity of access is stark. 80 percent of white students who enroll in a district school attend a high-ranking magnet school. By contrast, education for most low-income families and families of color in Baton Rouge has been defined solely by a family’s address. Most of these schools of assignment are underperforming based on state data, meaning students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to attend a school that perpetuates a cycle of poverty and undiscovered potential. It is imperative of us to increase access to high-quality schools for these children in order to build a foundation on which they can maximize their potential and enjoy lives defined by opportunity.

To this end, the latest school enrollment data shows an encouraging and democratic trend. When combined with the percentage of school-age children in our city choosing public charter, selective magnet, or private school options, a majority of Baton Rouge families are now exercising some form of school choice. This is a great thing for families and our city. When families are empowered to actively choose a great school that meets their family’s needs, they are more engaged in the outcomes of those schools and are experiencing stronger academic achievement – which significantly increases the likelihood that their children will be equipped for a life full of rewarding opportunities with long-term benefits not only for students but also for our community.

New Schools for Baton Rouge exists to expand the number of high quality school opportunities available to families of all backgrounds. The schools we support are tuition-free, open to all wishing to enroll, and publicly accountable for demonstrating growth and high marks in student achievement. Over the last nine years, we have recruited and supported the growth of more than twenty schools that are educating over 8,000 students. The vast majority of these families are opting out of being assigned to the underperforming district-run schools in their neighborhoods. Still, there remain thousands of families who have not yet exercised school choice for their children. We will do our part to empower these families with information and access to more high quality school options. We encourage all education stakeholders – especially our new superintendent and our local school board, to do the same. The data is clear: high quality school choice expands opportunities for Baton Rouge families and benefits our entire community.

Onward,
Chris

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