State leaders will soon decide how much leeway public schools should have to expand beyond their main campus and set up learning pods — small satellite campuses where children learn in small groups.
A key point of contention is whether schools interested in operating pods need to obtain prior approval from state regulators, or conversely, whether schools are free to open new pods wherever they choose and notify the state later . Also debatable is the degree to which the state ensures that these remote campuses comply with pre-existing school building safety regulations.
Learning pods, or microschools as they’re sometimes called, took off in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic as an alternative to traditional schools, which at the time often didn’t offer daily in-person classes.
In Louisiana, learning capsules were typically organized by parent groups as tuition-based home schools or small private schools. Public schools generally balked, however, because state laws have been silent on the issue.
In June 2021, lawmakers changed that, passing a new state “learning pod” law that paved the way for public schools to set up their own learning pods. However, the legislature left it to the State Council for Primary and Secondary Education to enact rules specifying the details.
Almost 18 months later, BESE still has to adopt pod rules. That could change on December 14, when the 11-member state board of education tries for the third time this year to pass such rules.
During this time, the rulemaking process was characterized by bureaucratic and legislative disputes.
The fight has pitted Louisiana Department of Education officials who want stricter rules against a prominent charter school group, Charter Schools USA, who want fewer restrictions.
In recent years, the charter school giant has opened several learning pods across southern Louisiana, but without first notifying the state board of education of its activities.
With seven schools in Louisiana and more than 6,000 students, the for-profit Ft. The Lauderdale company operates the second largest charter network in the state. There are plans to open an eighth school in Vermilion Parish soon.
Charter Schools USA is also politically influential. Over the past 12 years, the Company and its subsidiaries have donated nearly $100,000 to Louisiana politicians, including nearly $17,000 to BESE members and those running for office.
Four of its schools are Type 2 charter schools, meaning they are not limited to a geographic area and can enroll students from any part of Louisiana. Louisiana currently has 40 Type 2 charter schools.
Type 2 schools have historically been unable to take advantage of their nationwide reach, as families could only drive their children so far to school each day. However, Learning Pods can be located anywhere in Louisiana, eliminating long commutes as a barrier to enrollment.
The previously unknown learning pods were discovered during a recent exam conducted by the Iberville Charter Academy, a affiliated with Charter Schools USA in Plaquemine. The state mandated the audit, conducted by Washington DC-based advisory group TenSquare, as a condition of extending Iberville Charter’s operating contract for a further three years earlier this year.
TenSquare eventually recommended the school close immediately.
TenSquare auditors noted that the charter school opened its first pods in the fall of 2019 before the pandemic, starting with three pods and 140 children. As of February of this year, the Iberville Charter has expanded to seven pods, teaching about 260 students. That’s about half of the charter school enrollment. These groups range from five students in Pierre Part to 92 students in Thibodaux.
“Locations range from one or two rooms in a shopping center to a series of offices in an industrial park,” the auditors found.
The investigators also found that these capsules charged parents a series of unusual fees, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 per child per year, in addition to the $14,000 to $16,000 in annual public funding these children received contribute to Iberville Charter.
In a reply to the exam, Gary McGoffin, a Lafayette attorney representing the charter school, dismissed the exam, saying it was “worthless and should be completely disregarded.”
McGoffin argued that both before the passage of the 2021 law and afterwards, the school was within its legal rights to set up the learning pods as it did. He referenced a state education official who testified in May 2021 that he believed it was already legal for public schools to open pods, but that they were reluctant to do so because they lacked “the express authority required by law.” However, the new pod law has no wording that says it can be applied retrospectively.
McGoffin also says any remaining concerns will be addressed once BESE adopts rules for pod learning, he said.
The attorney also defended the fees, which ranged from $1,000 to $5,000 per year, that parents paid to those pods, not tuition, the investigators claimed, but the type of fees that other public schools routinely charge parents for additional educational services raise, such as and after-school care or music lessons.
“Many of the difficulties encountered during the exam were a direct byproduct of TenSquare’s ignorance of the Learning Pod Act and contemporary business practices,” wrote McGoffin.
At the suggestion of the audit, both the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and the State Inspector General’s Office have initiated preliminary investigations.
BESE will review the audit at its December meeting. State Superintendent Cade Brumley has not yet made his own recommendation on the future of the Iberville Charter Academy.
Brumley’s department first presented proposed pod rules to BESE in February. In the original version, charter schools would have had to change their operating contract before opening a capsule by asking BESE to approve a so-called substantive change. Charter schools have long had to come to BESE to change their charter when making changes to their school’s location.
However, BESE reacts with a delay. It decided instead to await the outcome of Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro’s House Bill 550 proposal, which outlined a very different approach.
Instead of requiring BESE’s prior approval of a substantial change, the proposed law stipulated that a charter school only had to notify BESE within 30 days of the capsule’s opening.
After the bill sailed through the House of Representatives, it encountered rougher seas in the Senate Education Committee. Senator Bodi White, R-Central and committee member, amended the bill to ban charter schools from opening pods in school districts with an A or B letter grade. White’s District 6 includes the A-rated Central School District and part of the B-rated Livingston Parish.
Brigitte Nieland testified before the committee and was identified as a spokesperson for Stand for Children Louisiana, for which she serves as director of government affairs and who was a prominent supporter of the pod law. Nieland is also a registered lobbyist with Charter Schools USA.
Nieland said requiring prior approval of pods by BESE would paralyze charter schools.
“It could be a very, very long process, and if you need to act fast, you need to act fast,” Nieland said.
For example, she said the Houma and Thibodaux pods, two of nine she knew of in Louisiana, were set up immediately after Hurricane Ida last year and didn’t “have to wait for the months-long process, sometimes, for BESE to meet.” “
However, Iberville Charter’s Houma and Thibodaux pods had been operational since 2019, auditors later revealed.
Belinda Davis, a BESE member pushing for stricter pod rules, told the committee that BESE moves quickly when needed, such as when BESE’s president suspended a host of state rules in the early days of the pandemic.
“There are ways to expedite this process so that it is done in a timely manner,” Davis said.
The House later rejected the amended Senate version of HB 550. A conference committee was formed, but the two chambers were unable to reach a compromise before the end of the session.
Back to BES
The failure of the bill meant that BESE was once again at the center of the action.
In August, Brumley’s office submitted similar pod rules to BESE as in February, but BESE again delayed action.
In late October, the department sent out a revised draft of the pod rules. It had dropped the idea of requiring charter schools to ask BESE to change their charter before opening a capsule. However, the state agency still insisted that charter schools obtain prior departmental approval, including completing a checklist certifying that the proposed pod location complies with state school safety laws.
The ministry is expected to release a final draft of its latest proposed pod rules soon.
BESE member Ronnie Morris said he was undecided. He said he’s doing his homework now, including meeting with an auditor from TenSquare to help him decide how to vote.
“I need to hear the rest of the arguments from all parties,” Morris said.
For her part, Davis said she plans to request BESE to adopt the original version of the rules that the board received in February.
BESE member Preston Castille said he would like charter schools to give advance notice if they plan to open a capsule, but said he is open to how best to do so.
“I want to make sure that the policy that is being promulgated ensures that children are safe and that we know from the start that this is happening,” Castille said.