Friday, March 18, 2016

State Board of Education compiles questions for charter school review on March 31

Posted By and on Fri, Mar 18, 2016 at 4:48 PM

click to enlarge SUPPORTING CHARTER REVIEW: Kathy Webb speaks at rally of Little Rock School District supporters.
  • SUPPORTING CHARTER REVIEW: Kathy Webb speaks at rally of Little Rock School District supporters.
The State Board of Education met this afternoon to formally pose questions for staff and schools to answer in its review of charter school expansion requests, including eStem and LISA Academy in Little Rock. (Two other charter schools subject to review were also swept up in the discussion, Little Rock's Covenant Keepers and Imboden Area Charter in eastern Arkansas, but public attention is focused on the contentious proposals by eStem and LISA.)

There was no direct discussion on the question of whether to scrap a planned March 31 public hearing on reviewing the charter school expansions, but the fallout from that question hung over today's meeting, which took place before a packed room.

At last week's regularly scheduled state board meeting, the body voted to hold a public hearing about the eStem and LISA proposals in light of the impact on the Little Rock School District if the expansions proceed. But yesterday (Thursday 3/17), an agenda for another meeting popped up on the Education Department's website that included items proposing to undo that vote, cancel the hearing and therefore give the final go-ahead to the charters. The items were added to the otherwise uncontroversial agenda by board member Brett Williamson; if they had passed by majority vote, it would have meant final victory for the charter expansions.  When that news became public yesterday, an outcry ensued. Williamson then pulled the items off the agenda.

Williamson, and Education Department staff, both said yesterday that the Friday meeting itself had been triggered by board member Jay Barth. But Barth said he didn't call a meeting — he just asked department staffers to gather information about charters prior to the March 31, seemingly a routing request.  Kendra Clay, the Education Department attorney, said today that questions about a charter review decision had to be presented at an open meeting, unlike most requests the board might make for more information. "The law outlines the process to request additional information," she said. "You are required to state the additional information you require. ... A public meeting had to be held." 

Be that as it may, something is still odd about this timeline. Barth requested information from the department. Presumably, the department notified the chair, Toyce Newton, who is responsible for calling board meetings. A meeting was called, with a strictly anodyne purpose: To ask board members what information they wanted to gather in advance of March 31, the main event. Then, Williamson requested the addition of agenda items concerning a matter that was quite obviously of great public interest (ie, the cancellation of the March 31 hearing). His items were added to the agenda, which was published only yesterday, presumably with the approval of the chair.

In any case, with today's meeting restored to pro-forma status, each board member was asked if they wanted to request information about the upcoming decisions. Except for Newton, all of the board members called in remotely.

Susan Chambers said she wanted information to help bridge the divide between pro-charter and anti-charter forces. "I haven't yet seen a lot of fact that would help us understand what the tradeoffs are between the traditional public schools in Little Rock, what income they would lose if the [charters] are expanded," she said. 

Williamson said he had received enough information to make his decision, which is why he felt the March 31 review was not necessary.

Mireya Reith requested much information about eStem and LISA. "I would be interested in a demographic outlook that reflected the last five years of students, including this year. In addition to race, I’d like to know about free-and-reduced lunch [low-income] students, English language-learners and special education students. … And the demographics of the anticipated population of students who would want to try to fill these additional seats." Reith also asked for demographic information on the waiting list to get into the charter schools, the length of which has been a key argument made by charter advocates. She also requested information about disciplinary action taken against students in the charters, student attrition rates, and a "cost per-pupil analysis that combines both public and private funds for those students and how that compares to the LRSD."

Later, Barth asked for more information on the waiting list. "How often the list is purged and corrected for folks who may no longer be truly waiting. How they make determinations of purging if that does take place. … Really, anything that would provide insight as to how many folks are still looking at these schools as an option." But Barth also wanted information from the district concerning how the LRSD would deal with a loss of per-student money in the event of a charter expansion. "I’d have interest in the LRSD’s take as to a plan of action to deal with any loss of funding, including a plan for collaboration with all existing charters south of the river."

Diane Zook focused her questions on the LRSD, rather than the charters. She asked for "the teacher absentee rate by school. Their RTI plan [response to intervention, or a plan for remediating students below grade level] implemented at each school. The after school and extended year program available at each school. Dyslexia progress at each school. How many students have been referred to ALE [alternative learning environments, meaning a self-contained setting for kids who have been expelled] … The students who have returned to the LRSD from private or home school. The graduation rate for [20]13-14 and 14-15. Racial percentage and free-and-reduced rate for each school, district, and area of town, and whether or not the school is a magnet school."

Both sides are marshalling their arguments in readiness for the March 31 meeting, in short.

Earlier this afternoon, a group of Little Rock School District supporters rallied at the state Capitol in advance of the meeting in favor of continuing the review process. City Director Kathy Webb was among the speakers calling for a time to gather information and consider it before making the charter expansion decisions.

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