Sunday, June 19, 2016

The future of LR schools: Pointed questions from Baker Kurrus

Posted By on Sun, Jun 19, 2016 at 8:07 AM

PARTING SHOT: Baker Kurrus poses some pointed questions as he heads for the exit as Little Rock school superintendent. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • PARTING SHOT: Baker Kurrus poses some pointed questions as he heads for the exit as Little Rock school superintendent.

Outgoing Little Rock School Superintendent Baker Kurrus has raised some pointed questions about a committee appointed to consider collaboration of true public school districts and charter schools in Pulaski County.

I'd boil it down simply to this: What's the point?  Particularly if the powers that be are committed to continued charter school expansion no matter what. But Kurrus also raises a much larger point largely avoided in charter growth in Arkansas: Who's behind the financial curtain of the private organizations paid to manage or lease facilities to the schools.

In April, the state Board of Education appointed the Little Rock Area Public Education Stakeholder Group to "identify opportunities for collaboration and coordination among charter schools."

That group is to meet later this month. Last week, Kurrus sent the group a letter that I've obtained. He also attached his earlier in-depth presentation to the state Board raising questions about the 3,000-seat expansions of the eStem and LISA Academy charter schools. Though Kurrus said these schools would continue to drain resources from the Little Rock School District without a showing of superior performance among children most in need, the Board approved the expansions anyway. Since then, Gov. Asa Hutchinson — a backer of charter school growth — has added two more of his own appointees to the Board.

Kurrus' resistance to charter school expansion got him fired by Education Commissioner Johnny Key, a carrier of Walton Family Foundation "choice" legislation when he was a state senator. Key runs the Little Rock School District since its state takeover for low scores in six of 48 schools. He tapped Bentonville School Superintendent Michael Poore to succeed Key and he's at work, with full transition to occur July 1. Poore has so far been noncommittal on his view on charter expansions.

Kurrus, who was invited to speak to the stakeholder group June 29, will continue to sound the alarm about charter expansion — particularly given that it is being done without regard for conditions on the ground in the Little Rock School District.

He wrote, beginning with his past appearance on the eStem and LISA expansions:

These expansions will create within your study area two large charter school districts. When eStem's expansion is complete it will be within the top fifteen or so school districts in Arkansas. Both of these schools and their expansions were approved in furtherance of a policy of "competition and choice."

By approving these charter expansions, the state has authorized the construction of two new public school building projects at a time when LRSD has excess capacity in many areas and shortages in others.

The Commissioner of Education gave Little Rock Preparatory Academy (LRPA) a waiver of the charter rules to allow it to file a request to relocate after the filing deadline has passed. Construction on the relocation project was initiated prior to any state approval to move. The Charter Authorizing Panel approved the move. The issue will be before the State Board on July 14, 2016.

The stakeholders group was authorized by state Board action on April 14, 2016. The minutes of the meeting reflect that the aim of the group is to "identify opportunities for collaboration and coordination among charter schools and traditional schools." Sometime between March 31, 2016, and April 14, 2016, the state board made a policy lurch from "competition and choice" to "collaboration and coordination." This lurch was made too late and after the big decisions about expanding charter schools have already been made.

The new LRPA, eStem and LISA projects require the charters in question to spend something more than $2 million in public funds per year in rent payments to non-public entities. The lessors receiving public monies from eStem and LRPA are not fully disclosed. Assuming these leases have fair market returns, these large public investments represent a present value of something in the order of $25 to $30 million in new capital investment for public schools within the boundaries of the LRSD.

It would be helpful to the public's understanding of the recent charter expansions, and your work, if the persons involved in these public transactions (including all lease transactions) were disclosed. It would also be appropriate, because public monies are being expended, if these transactions were reviewed to be sure that the transactions were fair and in the public interest from a financial point of view. These issues need to be examined, regardless of the future growth of charter schools and regardless of any plans for collaboration. Traditional public schools utilize a bidding process when financing school construction. If collaboration is to occur, these conflicting methods of school finance need to be reconciled.

The state Board decision on LRPA will be worthy of your scrutiny, and perhaps you should advise the state Board of your thoughts on this. If the LRPA relocation is approved, the possible impact of this group will be lessened even further.

Finally, I encourage you to refrain from a detailed analysis of specific potential collaborations until this group, the commissioner, the governor and the state Board of Education have clearly articulated the policies which drive their decisions. "Competition and choice" were used as justifications for the recent decisions which pre-empted much of your work. The major decisions in favor of charter school expansion have already been made. The idea of a committee to provide advice about "collaboration and coordination" to a changing state Board of Education after the major decisions have been made, requires frank and honest explanation.

Amen. Kurrus has exposed the soft white underbelly of the charter school movement. Hidden financial transactions, and some incidents of profiteering and corruption, have been reported in the proliferation of publicly financed schools run by private management companies around the country. The issue hasn't gotten much attention in Arkansas. It needs it.

I did report  that it was apparently a Walton-related entity that bought the former Lutheran school on West Markham street for LRPA. The Walton Family Foundation, with assistance from other wealthy Arkansans including publisher Walter Hussman and the Murphy Oil fortune heirs, is pushing the charter school agenda in Arkansas.

The new building for LRPA will enable it to move from a poorer section of town — amid the low-income minority students the school nominally aims to serve. It will be closer to succeeding Little Rock public elementary schools. Some fear this is a bald effort to cream those students for LRPA's middle school. Charter schools that enroll already achieving students tend to produce proficient scores. To date, LRPA's academic performance has been poor, below that of virtually all Little Rock conventional public schools. But still the charter authorizing panel — which rarely meets a charter school idea in Little Rock it doesn't like — approved the move anyway, despite both academic and financial questions.

Charter schools in Arkansas are not fully accountable, and not only because they don't answer to elected school boards. They ship big sums to private outfits — the national Exalt organization in the case of Little Rock Prep — whose records are not penetrable by the Freedom of Information Act. Obtaining records that ARE open to the public out of charter schools is often a difficult process. eStem and LISA have still not provided a full and open accounting of the supposed thousands-deep waiting lists that they always tout as evidence of the "failure" of Little Rock schools and need for more charter seats.

The core of Kurrus' message is simply put it seems to me: If the Walton Foundation is now running public education in Arkansas and if unlimited charter expansion, including the ultimate takeover of the Little Rock School District by private managers, is the end game, why bother with the "stakeholder" group? It has no powers beyond conscience anyway.

In the short run, however, encouraged by Kurrus' letter, the group might pose some worthwhile questions to Johnny Key and the state Board. Key doesn't answer many from the press, except from "friendlies." One example: My questions last week on why he and Gov. Asa Hutchinson funneled $400,000 to the Arkansas Public School Resource Center to make grants to schools for a tech education enrichment program The Center is a Walton-funded charter school lobbying organization on whose board of directors Key sat until last year. It all smelled a little cozy to me.  I still don't have an answer on my question of whether the APSRC will get a management fee for handling the money. Nor did I get an answer to my question of why the Education Department couldn't handle the grant-making itself. By the way: new Hutchinson state Education Board appointee Fitz Hill is also listed in the most recent tax documents as an APSRC director. He has a charter school on the campus of the college he leads, Arkansas Baptist. 

For the record: This is the Kurrus presentation on charter impact largely ignored by the state Board of Education .

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