State overrides local district, approves French immersion charter

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A popular French-language immersion program, which succumbed to budget cuts this year, will be reinstated in Norman, in the form of a public charter school.

The State Board of Education approved an application for Le Monde International School, despite opposition from Norman Public Schools Superintendent Joe Sciano and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

"I know the children of Norman can do nothing but benefit from this," said Loida Salmond, president of the LeMonde board. "This is a great way to make sure Oklahoma is on the cutting edge."

Parents took their plans for a charter school to the State Board after the Norman board unanimously defeated it Feb. 7.

Critics questioned whether the school could sustain itself and provide a quality education for its estimated 250 students. Particularly in challenging financial times, Hofmeister felt the school would further drain district resources.

"This is adding to something that goes beyond our capacity," Hofmeister said. "I would hate to see something start up that's not quite ready yet and that's my concern."

Sciano meanwhile, who admitted he is a fan of the immersion program, worried the fledgling school wouldn't measure up to Norman's standards.

"We have district standards," he said. "We expect them of all our schools. And if we were willing to endorse a charter, which we would have been, it would have had to meet those standards."

The new school would take an estimated $300,000-400,000 from the district in per pupil funding, Sciano said, and he wonders how easily the school will attract quality instructors during a statewide teacher shortage.

"Finding qualified teachers that both have the skills in French language and the pedagogy to teach elementary students is very challenging," he said. "There's a difference between getting someone in the classroom and getting somebody qualified in the classroom to do the work of elementary teachers."

But supporters, led by a passionate group of parents argued immersion students are frequently among the highest achieving in the district.

Learning a language early on, they argued, also helps students with problem solving and listening skills.

Parents put in hundreds of hours after work, visiting other cities with similar programs, to craft their curriculum.

"This is a win-win for the kids of Norman and creating a new public charter school within our community," said Salmond. "We're just really excited to hit the ground running and really make this a true reality."

This is the second time the State Board of Education has reversed a local district's decision on a proposed charter school this year.  The legislature passed a law in 2015 that allowed the state to review charter applications rejected by local districts.

Seminole successfully appealed and secured a charter school in January.

After the Norman vote, members of the board expressed concern that the state had no set standards for evaluating charter applications.

"Are we comfortable becoming a holding company for charters?" asked Boardmember Leo Baxter. "We have to decide what our standards are going to be. If Norman Public Schools has a higher standard for an approval by charters than we do, something's disconnected."

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association condemned the state's decision in a statement:

I am extremely disappointed that the state Board of Education blatantly ignored state law and the valid concerns of state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister in approving the LeMonde International Charter School application.

Norman Public Schools had identified 12 areas where the application fell short of charter school legal requirements. Furthermore, the state board unilaterally changed the opening date for the school, which the law doesn’t allow.

In voting to deny the charter school’s appeal, Hofmeister voiced strong concerns about the school’s ability to be successful and particularly to hire well-prepared teachers for a specialized program during a historic teacher shortage. She also questioned the state Education Department’s ability to oversee and support the charter amid continuing budget cuts.

This marks the second time the state Board of Education has approved a charter school appeal without close attention to whether the application complied with state law. In a letter to state board members earlier this month, OSSBA outlined its concerns with the board’s recent approval of a Seminole charter school. In both cases, the board did not dutifully address the reasons for denial or whether the application met the charter school law requirements.

The board needs to stop overturning valid decisions of local school boards and stop approving charter schools based on personal preferences while ignoring state law. The law is designed to ensure proposed charter schools are capable of providing a high-quality education for students. Failing to follow the law puts students and their education at risk.

Meanwhile, charter advocacy group ChoiceMatters issued a statement in support of the decision:

“Rural students deserve to have the same choices and opportunities that students in Tulsa and Oklahoma City have,” said Ruiz. “ Thanks to parents like the ones in Norman and Seminole, education choice is on the march. I think we will see more schools like Seminole Academy and Le Monde opening in other parts of Oklahoma and bringing incredible opportunities with them.”