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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Charter school debate shaping up in West Little Rock

Posted By on Sat, Aug 10, 2013 at 6:48 AM

click to enlarge GARY NEWTON The Waltons' front man on charter school push.
  • GARY NEWTON The Waltons' front man on charter school push.

GARY NEWTON The Waltons front man on charter school push.
  • GARY NEWTON The Waltons' front man on charter school push.
I had lunch with Dr. Dexter Suggs, the new Little Rock school superintendent, this week. He's not beaten down yet after a month at work.

Among many topics, he said he was firmly committed to building a middle school in west Little Rock, where students at the packed Roberts Elementary school currently have nowhere nearby to go. The closest middle school is Henderson, on John Barrow. Land has been purchased put under contract for the school near Johnson Ranch on Highway 10, but the transaction isn't completed and construction is not yet set.

School building in western Little Rock has been problematic for years because of the long-running school desegregation case, from which Little Rock is now mostly extricated. But race lingers as an issue. The Little Rock School District has been fighting the movement funded by some of the richest people in Arkansas that aims to break up the Little Rock District into as many free-standing school districts (publicly financed charter schools) as possible.

This week, I happened to also learn more about another charter school push. The latest batch of applications includes one sure to get opposition from the Little Rock District. It's the work of Gary Newton, a long-time critic of many aspects of the Little Rock school district, particularly its school board, and a former chamber of commerce executive. He started up an educational organization, Arkansas Learns, funded by Walton Foundation money to wage his fight. More recently, he's been named the new paid director of Arkansans for Education Reform, the charter school lobby funded by Walton money and also supported by Stephens, Murphy and Hussman families to advance their education reform agenda. That agenda includes charter schools, school vouchers, opposition to unionized teachers and the like.

Newton has been doing the spade work to start a charter middle school in western Little Rock. He's been assisted by Scott Smith, another recipient of Walton money at the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, but also a recipient of state taxpayer dollars. A national charter school operator has been engaged to run this school, Responsive Education Solutions of Texas. Remember that name. Its work was remarked on so poorly in a recent widely disseminated Stanford study of charter school performance that it was prompted to issue the lengthy defense I've linked.) Said another report:

Of four super-networks reviewed in the study, a pair of them, KIPP and Uncommon Schools, generally had a strong academic showing, the authors found, while the other two, Responsive Education Solutions and White Hat Management, did not fare as well.

For example, both KIPP and Uncommon Schools had a large, significant positive effect on the academic growth of students in both reading and math, the study found.

But Responsive Education Solutions had a significant negative impact on student reading and non-significant effects in math.

Newton is publicizing an Aug. 27 meeting at the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ to continue to build support for the application for the Quest Middle School. Under a new state law, the application could be approved or denied by state Education Department staff, but appeals of those decisions still may be made to the state Board of Education. It's hard to imagine this particular application won't inspire discussion and an appeal to the full board if the staff grants the application. Or rejects it. You can see Newton's pitch at an earlier meeting on the YouTube above.

The Little Rock School District has argued that the state has failed in its duty not to encourage resegregation by its approval of multiple charter schools in Little Rock. The very first school approved was a middle school, LISA Academy, in western Little Rock. It opened with a minority of black students and a relatively small percentage of students who qualified for subsidized lunch. This surrounded by a conventional public school district where blacks are in the majority and a much greater percentage of students qualified for free and reduced price lunches. The school affected one of the district's magnet schools, Dunbar, by luring away top math students. The pattern has been repeated, notably at the eStem charter school. It, too, enjoys a much smaller minority population and smaller percentage of economically disadvantaged kids than the Little Rock School District. Economic background is about as sure a prediction of academic performance as you can find (yet eStem often compares its test scores against those of the entire Little Rock district, with much different student demographics). The charter advocates argue that many all-black charter schools have been established, too, thus "helping" the district after a fashion by reducing minority population.

The west Little Rock charter school would be open to all comers. But it will sit in a majority white part of town. If experience is a guide, it will be attractive to parents in that neighborhood, less so in faraway inner city neighborhoods for kids without bus transportation. We can't know that for sure — until it's too late. But one of the early charter schools in Maumelle, which promised to particularly serve minority students, was heavily white in part because of the distance to black students. The argument now by charter school advocates is that race no longer matters. Resegregation in the name of school choice is OK, legally and otherwise. Jess Askew, a lawyer closely aligned with Walton-funded school efforts, including at eStem, has been making that argument repeatedly in court in various cases.

So the questions: Do taxpayers need to be paying for two new middle schools in western Little Rock, even if one has Walton money for startup costs? Do taxpayers want to create a whole new charter school district (the goal is to add a high school, too), with payments to a private Texas organization to operate it? (Remember that charter schools don't answer to the public; there are no elected school boards.) Does the state, with its poor record on providing nondiscriminatory equal education in Little Rock, want to encourage this effort in the whitest, most economically advantaged part of town? Should a state-supported school be created because parents don't want their children to attend available middle schools that happen to be majority black? The Waltons say the answer is yes. And they have the money, and the lawyers, to argue the case.

I feel confident that there will be arguments.

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