Thursday, March 17, 2016

UPDATE: State board attempts to walk back decision to review charter schools

Posted By on Thu, Mar 17, 2016 at 3:02 PM

click to enlarge TO REVIEW OR NOT TO REVIEW: The state Board of Education at its March meeting. From left, Charisse Dean, Education Commissioner Johnny Key, Toyce Newton, Mireya Reith, Vicki Saviers, Brett Williamson, Joe Black and Susan Chambers. - BENJI HARDY
  • TO REVIEW OR NOT TO REVIEW: The state Board of Education at its March meeting. From left, Charisse Dean, Education Commissioner Johnny Key, Toyce Newton, Mireya Reith, Vicki Saviers, Brett Williamson, Joe Black and Susan Chambers.

UPDATE, 5:30 p.m.: I spoke with Brett Williamson of El Dorado, the state board member who voted against the motion last week to review the eStem and LISA expansions. Williamson, who is also general manager for Murphy Offices LLC and the Murphy Foundation, said that he — not board chair Toyce Newton — added the four agenda items about rescinding last week's vote of the state board. However, the chair still evidently agreed to add the items to the agenda.

"I'm just supportive of charters," Williamson said. "If there are 6,000 kids on the waiting list, that says something to me." (The number is a much-cited reference to eStem's waiting list, although as I reported last fall, that waiting list is rarely "cleaned up" and likely includes an unknown number of families who are no longer actively seeking a spot at the school.)

Kim Friedman, a Department of Education spokesperson, also responded to a request for more information from Max. It appears the meeting itself was originally intended to consist of nothing more than a discussion of information the board needed to prepare for the March 31 hearing. She wrote:
[Board member] Dr. [Jay] Barth initially requested more information from the charters in preparation for the March 31 meeting. This request has to be adopted by the full board, thus the reason for the special SBE meeting. Brett Williamson subsequently requested consideration of rescinding the decision to review the charter proposals. These items were presented to the chair, who agreed to put them on the agenda. The agenda was arranged so that the board could consider the motions to rescind prior to the request for information because if the previous actions are rescinded, the request for additional information would no longer be necessary.
Williamson confirmed this. "I think Dr. Barth wanted to meet so we could all get our collective heads together about what we wanted to ask from the charter schools ... I was contacted to see my availability, and I said, 'Well look, let's just throw out recensions for each of the ... charter schools, and see how it works.' And they wound up putting them on [the agenda]," he said.

I asked him why he wanted to hold another vote on an issue that the board voted on just a week ago. "I'm just supportive of charters, and I didn't see any reason that it needed a review after the charter panel already recommended it," he said.

Even so, shouldn't Little Rock residents have a chance to shape the discussion via a public hearing? Williamson said he felt he'd already heard both sides of the argument about charters. "I've gotten close to 200 emails, from various charter school supporters and LRSD supporters. I mean, I get it — I understand. I just think that kids should have the best options available for education, and if that means the student and the parents decide that they would like to go to a charter school then I think that they ought to be able to do that."

And does he predict this will pass tomorrow? Will the board reverse a 6-1 vote and 7-1 vote within eight days time to prevent a public hearing on this issue?

"I have no idea. I'd hate to guess on that," he said.


In a surprise move, the state Board of Education may reverse its decision to hold a public hearing on the question of allowing two Little Rock charter schools — eStem and LISA Academy — to significantly expand their operations in the city. The state board will meet tomorrow afternoon (Friday, March 18) at 4:15 p.m. to consider several agenda items, all of which concern the "recession" of actions the board took last week on charter schools.

This is extraordinary. Authorization of the eStem and LISA expansions is a decision with tremendous consequences for the Little Rock School District, which is itself currently under control of the state Education Department. The importance of the decision is such that on March 10, exactly one week ago, the state board voted to hold a special public hearing on the matter outside of its regularly scheduled morning sessions. Board member Mireya Reith asked that the eStem/LISA hearing be scheduled during the evening so as not to interfere with the workday, saying "we owe this district … a hearing when everyone can attend."

The hearing was set for March 31, at 5 p.m. But around midday today, an agenda appeared on the Education Department's website announcing an impromptu state board meeting to be held on Friday afternoon. The apparent goal of tomorrow's meeting: undoing the March 31 public eStem/LISA hearing altogether.

Why would the state board try to rescind a major decision it made only seven days ago?

The question is all the more frustrating because the votes last week to hold a public hearing on the eStem/LISA question seemed decisive. The vote to put the LISA plan to a public hearing was 7-1; the eStem vote was 6-1, because board member Vicki Saviers, who was on eStem's founding board, recused herself from that decision. The sole "no" vote in both cases was Brett Williamson of El Dorado. (Somewhat confusingly, Diane Zook, a consistent advocate of charter expansion, first pushed to avoid a review but then joined the majority of her colleagues when it became clear the motion to review would pass.) Chairwoman Toyce Newton did not vote, as the chair typically votes only to break a tie.

An Education Department spokesperson told me today that the chair has the power to call special meetings, and that Toyce Newton called Friday's meeting. I've asked Newton for comment, and Williamson as well. I'll update this post if I get a response from either.

There are nine members on the state board. Two, Mireya Reith and Jay Barth (who is also a columnist for the Arkansas Times) have spoken out in favor of a hearing on the eStem/LISA expansions. Williamson and Zook clearly would prefer to not have a public hearing. That leaves Charisse Dean, Susan Chambers, Joe Black and Vicki Saviers, who voted for review last week (in Saviers' case, for LISA only). Will their votes change tomorrow? If so, what made the difference between last week and now?

Some background: As explained in this article last fall, eStem and LISA have proposed aggressive growth plans that will likely attract thousands of kids away from the LRSD, thus undermining the district's attempts to turn around its academically troubled schools. The district itself and a chorus of advocates of public education in Little Rock have urged rejection of the charter schools' plans at such a pivotal time, warning that the increased competition on a tilted playing field could extinguish signs of recovery within the LRSD. The eStem/LISA expansions required approval from the charter authorizing panel, a group of staffers within the Arkansas Department of Education; charter schools, because they are not governed by a publicly elected school board, are overseen by the state. The charter authorizing panel approved the eStem and LISA plans in February. But the charter authorizing panel's decisions are always subject to review by the state Board of Education, a (supposedly) independent, governor-appointed body that typically has the final say over matter of education policy.

The state board had the option this month of accepting the staff panel's recommendation to green-light the eStem/LISA expansion, or to review it. Last week, after a number of public comments favoring review (and one against, from a Republican state senator from Hot Springs), the state board agreed to the public hearing.

It was still an open question whether or not the state board would eventually approve or deny the eStem and LISA proposals. The safe money has been on approval, given the politics of the high-profile question: Some of the state's wealthiest and most influential citizens are vocal proponents of charters, such as the Walton and Murphy families. (Brett Williamson works as general manager for Murphy Offices LLC and the Murphy Foundation.) Still, it looked as though the public would at least be given a chance to weigh in on the momentous decision. If the board votes to rescind last week's vote and kill the March 31 hearing, that will no longer be the case.

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