Celebrating School Choice: Programs Give Parents, Students Options

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1/24/2017

Shea Drake, Banner-Tribune 

National School Choice Week began Monday in Louisiana and across the country. It’s a reminder that parents and students in St. Mary have options other than traditional public schools.

Part of the mission of Central Catholic High School is to offer an alternative education admission to people in the Tri-City and surrounding areas.

This alternative is a religion-based education, which allows the school an opportunity to teach about God and infuse the Christian and Catholic values throughout the entire curriculum.

“Wherever we can afford the opportunity to be able to let people attend Central Catholic High School, we think it’s a great privilege,” said Central Catholic High Principal Vic Bonnaffee.

“We think it’s a great honor that we basically have a lot of parents who want to be able to have their children come to Central. And they work very hard, some of them even two jobs to make sure their children can be here at Central Catholic High School.”

Central Catholic has participated in the state voucher program for four years. Eight students enrolled for the 2016-17 school year as scholarship recipients, said Central Catholic High administrative assistant Sandy Daigle. Since 2014, the number of scholarship recipients has ranged from six to 10.

There are three different types of voucher programs out there right now, Bonnaffee said. Perhaps the most widely known voucher program allows students attending failing schools an opportunity to go to another school of their choice.

The two additional voucher programs for students to attend a denominational school are Arete Scholars Louisiana and ACE Scholarships Louisiana.

Arete and ACE are foundations that have been set up to allow individuals who attend any public school to be able to attend a private school in our area, Bonnaffee said.

“We feel it’s very beneficial we offer this alternative in the area to people who don’t want to have public education,” Bonnaffee said. “And we also feel like it’s very important to get those individuals to attend Central.”

The Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy is another option for students in St. Mary. Currently, 11 students from the parish are enrolled as full-time students at the online school based in Baton Rouge. These students are in grades first through 11th.

The full-time online charter school opened in 2011 with enrollment numbers over 1,000. In its sixth year of operation, the school’s enrollment numbers have been close to the 1,900 mark for three years, said Perry Daniel, Deputy Regional Vice President of Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy.

“We know that parents having a choice is very important,” Daniel said. “And it’s great that we have so many options in our state so that we can address the needs of all different types of learners.”

The virtual component provides a different option for parents who are in unique situations, Daniel said. For parents who want to homeschool, but don’t have the skillset to do so, the virtual component provides that option for them.

It also provides an option for students who suffer from serious or chronic illnesses that won’t allow them to attend the traditional school on a regular basis, Daniel said.

In a virtual setting, if students have to go to doctor appointments or things of that nature, they can always go back and view their courses because they are recorded.

The virtual academy is open to all students in every parish and school district in the state.

Contrary to what some might believe, the state’s teachers union is not against school choice. It’s the means by which these alternative choices of learning are funded and governed that’s problematic.

“We don’t have a stance against choice,” said Louisiana Association of Educators President Debbie Meaux. “We do believe parents have the right to choose whatever educational route they think is best for their child.

“However, we do have a stance against charter schools that are not school board authorized. We believe that just giving authority for a charter school to start up without the expertise and input of the school district … is irresponsible.”

The funding for any K-12 school of choice, whether it is traditional, charter, voucher or homeschooling, does not appear to be distributed on an equal level playing field.

“We want every single child to have the best possible education,” Meaux said. “And any time there is competition with funding that desire to have children to get a world class education, it is compromised.

“We just believe the charter law is in many ways deficient in making sure that children are served well and not just in the charter schools but in the K-12.”

In a presentation on Monday, Meaux said to BESE members: “We have to figure out the funding piece. …

“We have too many different school districts. … We’re not making sure that every single child gets an education that is equity based.”

Opening more charter schools should be carefully considered, Meaux said. The failure or closure of a charter school could devastate students and parents.

“We never ever want to see a school closed,” Meaux said. “The charter schools that exist, we are not about defunding and decharterizing them. But we do believe there needs to be more restraint on putting more of these schools in place because when they do fail, they are closed.”

National School Choice Week is an independent public awareness effort spotlighting effective education options for children, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online learning and homeschooling.

The week runs from Jan. 22-28. For information, visit www.schoolchoiceweek.com.

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