Friday, February 12, 2016

LRSD superintendent, advisory committee urge caution on charter school expansion plans

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2016 at 11:34 AM

click to enlarge BAKER KURRUS: The LRSD superintendent, shown here in a file photo from last year. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • BAKER KURRUS: The LRSD superintendent, shown here in a file photo from last year.

Yesterday, Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus and other district officials appeared before the state Board of Education to deliver an update on progress in the LRSD, which has now been under state control for a little over a year. The Citizens Advisory Committee, a group established by the state board to solicit community input, and Little Rock Education Association president Cathy Koehler also gave remarks.

The superintendent, the advisory committee and the teachers' union president had a clear message for the board: Beware of ambitious charter school expansion plans at a time when the LRSD is at a crossroads.

Multiple charter operators in Little Rock, including eStem and LISA Academy*, are seeking approval to significantly expand their footprint in the city, adding another 3,000 students to their collective capacity if their plans are approved. That would almost double the size of charter operators in the LRSD's geographical area. Although the Education Department's Charter Authorizing Panel has the first word on any expansion plans, final authority rests with the state board.

Koehler framed the state board's choice in terms of a duty to the district that it voted to take over: "If you allow the expansion of the charters, you will undermine the moral imperative you took upon yourself," she told the nine-member panel.

For those who want the LRSD to survive and thrive — regardless of one's feelings on the state takeover decision — this unified front from local school stakeholders is welcome news. No, charter schools are not the source of all the district's problems — but it's undeniable that doubling the charter capacity in Little Rock will make the LRSD's already tremendously tough job that much tougher. 

I hope to say more about all of this later, but for now take a look at this letter sent earlier in the month to the Charter Authorizing Panel by Superintendent Kurrus. In it, he succinctly and logically lays out the arguments against charter expansion at a moment when the district is especially vulnerable. 

First, he noted, the Education Department now controls all of the public schools in Pulaski County except for those in the North Little Rock School District. Regardless of whether one thinks of charters and school choice as a good or bad thing, it's impossible to determine the right direction for the LRSD without a sense of how the educational landscape is going to shift in the coming years — which depends to a large degree on the will of the state:

If the ADE expects to continue to approve new charters, LRSD needs to plan for this. Without a comprehensive longer-range plan, or at least some idea of the future plans that the ADE has for the school districts it controls, it is nearly impossible for LRSD to formulate a sensible plan.

Second, charter operators in Little Rock want to expand dramatically, but the population of the LRSD is not growing substantially: 

Much of the western part of the city of Little Rock is not located in the LRSD. Metroplan has provided me with very helpful data that shows estimated population trends. Metroplan estimates that the population within LRSD grew by an estimated .7 percent per year (.007) over the period from 2010 to 2015. Growth of charter enrollment will reduce the size of LRSD, and will dramatically change the demographics of LRSD. .... As a simple matter of mathematics, if LISA and eStem are successful with their announced plans, LRSD has to plan for a much smaller enrollment.

Declining enrollment is one thing — but the real body blow is the changing demographics issue. Charter schools (at least the three charters that are proposing expansions) attract a greater percentage of middle-to-upper income families than does the LRSD:

If the charter expansions of eStem and LISA are approved, and those schools enroll 75% of their new students from LRSD in the same percentages as they currently do, LRSD’s white population goes down by 22%. If all the students come from LRSD, the white population drops by almost 30%. Poverty and special education population percentages rise with every expansion of LISA and eStem, because they do not enroll these students at the same levels as LRSD.

In summary, if eStem and LISA continue to enroll students with their current demographics, LRSD becomes more segregated by race and income, and has a higher percentage of students with special
needs. 

It will be much more difficult to exit from academic distress in this environment. As more of the higher achieving students are lost, a greater number of non-proficient students must be raised to proficiency in order to meet the exit threshold percentage. 

Finally, Kurrus supplied data on academic performance, socioeconomic and racial demographics and the number of students with disabilities in district and charter schools:

The chart attached as Exhibit B shows the current populations of special education students enrolled at LRSD, LISA and eStem. The chart speaks for itself, but it simply must be noted that LRSD has almost twice the percentage of students with special needs as does LISA or eStem. The comparative levels of disability of all of these students needs further study.

It is hard to argue against competition and choice. However, the competition needs to be fair, and people need to make informed choices based on permissible discriminators. In addition, the competition is not being held under similar rules. Charters simply do not enroll poor kids or disabled kids at a rate which approaches the rates in most schools in LRSD.

Public charters in Little Rock that enroll low income students struggle. One of the most poignant aspects of my planning analysis is that the closure of a failing charter will further compound LRSD’s challenge, because these students in failing charters will probably come back to LRSD. In the meantime, if some charters continue to under-enroll students of greatest need, the challenge faced by LRSD becomes monumental. The obligation to provide a free and adequate education for all students ultimately falls on the State of Arkansas, so the issues in question are tremendously important.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Quest, the charter operator in West Little Rock, was also seeking authorization for an expansion. In fact, Quest has already been approved to open a new high school.

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