University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

A Plan for Little Rock

In The View from the OEP on April 6, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Have you heard?  Little Rock needs a plan for its schools.

Last week, OEP participated in the special State Board Meeting to review decisions made by the Charter Authorizing Panel regarding some Little Rock charter schools.  Today we are summing it up and giving you our take.

There were LOTS of people at the meeting signing up for public comment either FOR or AGAINST. The meeting opened with many legislators speaking in favor of charter expansion, including Lt. Governor Tim Griffin.

Covenant Keepers

First on the agenda was Covenant Keepers, a charter school serving a population of students who are 100% minority, 31% ELL and 96% Free/Reduced Lunch eligible. Covenant Keepers’ charter renewal was approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel, but the State Board elected to review the Panel’s decision. (In an earlier post here, OEP suggested that the State Board should defer to the decision of the Charter Authorizing Panel, which is comprised of experienced educators who had carefully considered the decision they rendered.) The only person who signed up to speak against the renewal of Covenant Keepers actually spoke against the expansion of charter schools, which was not relevant to the Covenant Keepers item.  No one from Little Rock School District opposed Covenant Keepers. After heavy questioning of the school’s leaders, the State Board unanimously affirmed the decision of the Charter Authorizing Panel and renewed the charter for 3 years.

LISA Academy

Next up was LISA Academy, a charter school serving a population of students who are 69% minority, 4% ELL and 45% Free/Reduced Lunch eligible. LISA’s amendment to its charter, expanding the enrollment cap by 600 students in conjunction with opening a K-6 campus in West Little Rock, was approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel, but the State Board elected to review the Panel’s decision.

After the school presented materials demonstrating community desire through long waitlists and the detailed plan of implementation, Representatives Clarke Tucker and Charles Blake joined Senator Joyce Elliot in speaking in opposition to the  LISA expansion. Rep. Clarke Tucker (D) urged the State Board, “To create an opportunity for a city that has both charter schools and traditional public schools, to come up with a plan and work together for the betterment of the public education for the entire city.”   Rep. Tucker stated, “You need quantitative analysis, discussion and collaboration. You have to know the impact (on LRSD), before you can make the decision.”

Next up to speak against the LISA expansion was LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus. Superintendent Kurrus gave a nearly 20 minute presentation, showing data comparing LRSD and the charters.  I can’t link you to it, because it was not part of the public documentation posted by the SBE, but essentially he suggested that LISA was intended to serve a small number of at-risk students when it opened in 2004, and that LISA’s current expansion was far afield from the original intent because it serves a less at-risk population that LRSD. He believes the expansion will hurt LRSD, by leaving the district with a greater percentage of challenging students.  Superintendent Kurrus said he needed a plan of what was going to happen in regards to charters in the future in order to develop plans for LRSD.

After a handful of public comments, the Board began to discuss the issue.  Board members had a copy of the information being presented by LRSD, but Board member Vicki Saviers noted that the information the Board had received from the two sides (charter and LRSD) “Just doesn’t add up… there are two sets of information.”  In addition, she asked, “Is it the State Board of Education’s job to create a plan for Little Rock School District, or a plan for Pulaski County at large?”

It was up to Commissioner Johnny Key to answer that question.  “How do charters and traditional public schools work together?” Johnny Key asked. He mentioned numerous places around the country where such partnerships appeared to be working well. Next, Commissioner Key read a summary from a Detroit study that he felt was relevant.  In it, researchers indicated that parents made it clear to us that they didn’t care what their school is called, “What they want and need is for someone to take responsibility for making sure that when their child heads to school each day he or she will be safe, cared for and well educated.”

He noted that a plan for Little Rock needs to happen, that he had started that process, and that there are “A lot of smart people that want to make this work.”

The Board affirmed the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision to grant the LISA expansion by a 5 to 3 vote, and unanimously agreed to place an action item on the April agenda about developing a strategic plan for the Little Rock area.

ESTEM

By now 10 pm, it was time for eSTEM, perhaps the most contentious item on the agenda. ESTEM is a charter school serving a population of students who are 57% minority, 2% ELL and 32% Free/Reduced Lunch eligible. ESTEM’s amendment to its charter, expanding the enrollment cap by 2,382 students in conjunction with several campus shifts and relocations was approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel, but the State Board elected to review the Panel’s decision.

After the school presented their materials demonstrating community desire through long waitlists and the detailed plan of implementation, Baker Kurrus spoke again in opposition for fifteen minutes or so.  “I hear a train coming,” said Kurrus, recognizing that the Board was likely going to approve the expansion.

Contrary to when he spoke in opposition to LISA, Supt. Kurrus was no longer calling for a plan for LRSD. “We don’t need plans to serve kids who are approx. 80% proficient or advanced,” said Kurrus. “We are doing a great job of that in Little Rock already.”  It’s interesting to consider for a minute what ‘great job’ Mr. Kurrus is referring to.  We have to wonder, if LRSD is doing a great job with these students, then WHY ARE THEY LEAVING?

Superintendent Kurrus also seemed to imply that kids who were scoring proficient are getting all they need out of their education, and should be happy with that. “The state of Arkansas has NO OBLIGATION to provide anyone with anything other than a free and efficient education,” said Kurrus, “and a kid who is scoring at proficient/advanced level is getting such an education.”

Making an interesting comment in light of the plan of collaboration proposed earlier by the Board, Kurrus continued, “There’s no need for us to collaborate with eSTEM or anyone else to serve the kids they currently serve.”

The Board affirmed the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision to grant the eSTEM expansion, and eSTEM supporters that had been waiting six hours cheered.

So, what is our take here at OEP?

  1. This process, while lengthy, has been good for everybody.  The charters have had to make their case several times, and LRSD has had to make theirs. The public has had opportunities to make their voices heard.
  2. The anti-charter attitude seems to only apply to ‘certain charters’.  LRSD and the public were not protesting Covenant Keepers, which serves high poverty students.
  3. It’s tough to be a charter. If you serve very disadvantaged kids, you get pressured for low performance.  If you have high performance, you get attacked for ‘taking’ proficient kids out of the school system.
  4. And just so we are clear: Charters can’t ‘pick’ students.  They CAN, however, pick their teachers, which can make a big difference for students.
  5. We love the idea of using data to support quality policy making and working to develop a strategic plan for the Little Rock area. There are several districts around the country that are working ‘portfolio districts’ where traditional and charter schools work effectively together.  We hope the group will be clear about the mission and focus.  We would suggest considering the following questions:
    • What are the measurable goals for schools and what data should we be collecting?
    • Should traditional public schools be required — in public forums — to demonstrate effectiveness  in meeting the goals as charter schools are?
    • How can we get quality information without spending a lot of money or putting an undue burden on the schools?
    • How can we convince all policymakers and observers that high quality comparisons of student growth — not simple proficiency rates — are vital to the discussion.
    • How can we incorporate fiscal efficiency in these discussion?
    • How can we gather community input, that so is critical to successful planning?

Little Rock isn’t the only community that is going to have to figure out a plan to incorporate charters into their school systems.  We are happy to help however we can, and look forward to keeping what’s best for students at the forefront of the discussion.

 

 

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