University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Big Day in Little Rock

In The View from the OEP on March 30, 2016 at 11:40 am

Tomorrow is a Big Day in Little Rock.  The State Board of Education will decide whether two public charter schools, eSTEM and LISA, will be allowed to expand their programs. The charter school issue in Little Rock continues to stir lots of emotions regarding education, equality, opportunity, and what’s “right”.  In Today’s blog, we take a look at how we got here, what the issues are, and what we think is best for the students in Little Rock.

2004: LISA Academy opened in Little Rock.

2oo8: eSTEM charter school opened in Little Rock.

January 2015: The State Board of Education assumed control of LRSD because six campuses were labeled “Academically Distressed”

January 2016: LISA and eSTEM applied to amend their existing charters- expanding their offerings.  LISA requested an expansion to include K-6 students, and an increase of 600 students to its enrollment cap. ESTEM requested a multi-faceted and multi-year expansion plan that includes adding a new elementary school,  an adjoining junior high, and moving the 10th-12th graders to a new location at UALR. ESTEM is requesting an expansion to their enrollment cap- from  1,462 students to 3,844, an increase of 2,382 students.

February 2016: The Charter Authorizing Panel approved the expansion plans for eSTEM, and conditionally approved LISA’s elementary school request.  As we discussed in an earlier blog, the panel, which consists of top-level staff members at the Arkansas Department of Education, asked challenging questions about many facets of the proposals and discussed the difficulty of making the decision. (Click Here to read the article that was posted on the Arkansas Times)

March 9, 2016: The State Board of Education voted to hold hearings on  the expansion of eSTEM and LISA.  The board has the legal authority to either accept the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision on a charter school or hold its own hearing at a later date. (Click here for more information)

March 31, 2016 (tomorrow!): State Hearings will be held at 5:00 at the Arch Ford Building in Little Rock.  The decision of the board will impact education in Little Rock and, likely, throughout the state.

So, in sum – two charter schools want to expand, a group of state department education experts thought the issue through carefully and approved the expansion.  The additional seats would be phased on over several years and would represent a small percentage of Little Rock’s enrollment.

What’s the big deal? Why so much drama?

There are several issues that opponents to the expansions have raised:

Creaming’: Opponents of the expansion, including Baker Kurrus, state-appointed superintendent of LRSD, claim that eSTEM and LISA are ‘creaming’ students from LRSD.  They suggest  expanding the charters will lead to a downfall of LRSD, because the students going to eSTEM and LISA are easier to educate (fewer students of poverty, with special needs, and limited English speakers).  As we discussed in our earlier blog, charter schools have no control over which students attend.  Unlike traditional public schools, students from anywhere can apply to eSTEM and LISA. The students are selected through a lottery process, where every applicant has the same chance to enter.  Schools cannot select ‘good kids’ to get in, nor can they give extra chances to at-risk kids.  It’s random.

Money:   Were LRSD to lose these 2,128 students to eSTEM and LISA, LRSD would lose nearly $15 million in annual per-pupil funding. That seems like a big number, but it is less than 5% of LRSD’s overall revenue of $340 million.  Moreover, while Little Rock SD would have fewer dollars available (after a one-year lag since funding is based on prior year enrollment), we should not overlook the obvious fact that the district would be responsible for educating fewer students. Finally, it is worth noting that eSTEM and LISA both spend substantially fewer dollars per pupil than does LRSD. According to the 2014-15 Annual Statistical report, eSTEM spent $7,907 per pupil, LISA spent $7,268 and LRSD spent $13,704.

Student Learning:  Well, actually, no one is really talking about this directly.  It seems assumed that eSTEM and LISA provide good education for kids.  Some say eSTEM and LISA have good results because their students are ‘better’ to start with, but here at OEP, we find these schools typically produce positive student outcomes even when we compare to other kids who performed just like them academically before attending the charter. But parents think eSTEM or LISA will be good for their kids, and thousands of students are currently on waiting lists for these two charter schools.

So what do we recommend?

The State Board should not overrule the thoughtful decision made by the experienced education professionals on the Charter Review Board. Thus, the State Board should vote to allow the expansions that were recommended after the thorough consideration of the Charter Review Board.

Some folks are framing this as Traditional Schools vs. Charter Schools showdown.  As State Board member Vicki Saviers said at the March 9th meeting,  “If we are unable to work together to effectively educate our students, I believe that the only losers will be the students and families in Little Rock.”  Little Rock is not the first city to struggle with how to incorporate effective charter schools into the education landscape, and Ms. Saviers mentioned the Indianapolis school system as one where the district has developed partnerships with charter school leaders.

Indianapolis and many other districts throughout the country are members of a ‘portfolio’ network at the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  CRPE has developed seven key components to implementing a portfolio structure which is “A problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools.”   In our opinion, the Board should approve the expansion plans, because eSTEM and LISA are effective and efficient.  Following the approval, the Board should work to support collaboration and communication between LRSD and the charters.  It is not Traditional Schools vs. Charter Schools, it’s problem-solving. We see this type of collaboration as a way to move forward and do what is best for kids.

In our view, the goal of the State Board of Education, and of every local school board, should be to provide as many high-quality public school options (whether they be traditional public schools or public charter schools) or as possible so that each student in Arkansas has the best chance of having a positive educational experience.

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