Feb 212017

Children read and play at a holiday fundraiser for Lycee Francais in 2011. (file photo by Sabree Hill, UptownMessenger.com)

The governing board of Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans voted Monday night to dedicate another $10,000 to the legal fight against a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court that seeks to deem funding for some charter schools unconstitutional.

Lycee Francais is a Type 2 charter school, meaning that it is governed directly by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, rather than a parish school board or the Recovery School District. In 2015, the Louisiana Association of Educators filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the state Constitution prohibits payments from the state’s per-pupil funding formula for Type 2 charter schools, which provides the vast majority of their operating budgets.

The state successfully defended the Type 2 charter funding against the lawsuit in the trial court in 2015, but the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision in January of this year by a 3-2 vote, sending the case to the state Supreme Court. The appeals court also issued a stay on its decision, however, so the 32 charter schools affected and the 16,000 students they serve will continue to be funded until the Supreme Court decides.

“It was always an inevitability that this would end up in the Supreme Court,” said Lycee board member Ben Castoriano, an attorney. “… Some of the issues get to the foundational issues of charter schools, really.”

The lawsuit is not specifically against Lycee Francais, and in fact originates in Iberia Parish — where some of the charter schools are run by for-profit companies and are not as closely aligned with the rest of the school system as they are in Orleans Parish, said Lycee board chair Michael Williams on Monday night. Lycee does not have its own attorney arguing in the case, but the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools is representing all the Type 2 charters, Williams said.

The LAPCS has asked its member schools to help with the legal fees by donating the amount represented by a single student’s per-pupil funding, which is almost exactly $10,000, Williams said. Lycee has donated the amount once before, when the case was first being heard in trial court, and now that it is headed to the state Supreme Court, the LAPCS is asking again, he said.

Arguments before the state Supreme Court are expected in the spring, and a decision in the summer, Williams said. In the meantime, there is little that Lycee or its families can do, as the Supreme Court’s decision will strictly apply to how the state Constitution applies to charter funding — not the impact on students.

The best outcome for Lycee is that the Supreme Court will side with the state and rule that the state’s per-pupil formula [known as the “MFP”] is appropriate for use for Type 2 charters, Williams said. If the court rules against the Type 2s, however, Williams said he has received every assurance that the state funding will continue, simply in a different form.

The lawsuit does not challenge the Type 2 charters’ right to exist, Williams said, but only the state’s use of the MFP to fund them.

“I am told by people of all levels of the government, Type 2 charters are important,” Williams said. “There is going to be money. They will figure out where the money is coming from.”

In the past, for example, Type 2 charter schools were funded by a separate line item in the state budget apart from the rest of the public school system. That’s not ideal, because it would not be subject to the same protections as public-school money, Castoriano said, but the legislature could still return to that system if the Supreme Court forced it to.

“There is no chance that Lycee is going to close regardless of whether we get MFP money,” Williams said. “There are other avenues we could go down at a moment’s notice.”

Another, less-attractive option would be for Lycee to change to a different type of charter, Williams said. In the event that becomes necessary, however, Lycee officials have already begun investigating how they could maintain their current students from outside New Orleans could be exempt from residency requirements.

“I assure you that the students who do not live in Orleans Parish have been thought about every step of the way,” Williams said.

The Lycee board voted unanimously in favor of the $10,000 contribution to the LAPCS legal fund. Other charter schools, not just Type 2s, are contributing to the LAPCS legal defense fund as well, said CEO Keith Bartlett, because of the broader implications of the lawsuit.

“Everybody sees this as a slippery slope,” said Lycee CEO Keith Bartlett. “If this fails, then they’re coming after the other charters as well.”

To read more, see our live coverage below.

Live Blog Lycee Francais board meeting – Feb. 20, 2017

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