It's been a bad year for charter schools in Arkansas — so far, anyway.
The state Board of Education approved three new ones to open this fall, but two others closed last spring because they lost too many students and ran out of money. Two others are facing serious financial problems.
But the year may yet take a better turn. In a couple of weeks, the state Board of Education will begin considering the record dozen applications to open charter schools next year — including six that hope to locate in Little Rock or North Little Rock, twice as many as last year.
They may fare better than last year's crop — the three approved were out of 11 applications. Several of the “no” votes were 5-4, and one of the consistent “no” voters — Calvin King — is no longer on the board. Several of this year's applicants — including two in Little Rock — are repeats from last year who weren't eligible by law for approval because they didn't have their 501c3 non-profit status papers in hand on the day of their application hearing. They won't have that problem this year.
So who are they? And why so many in Little Rock?
The answer to the second question is sheer numbers, said Caroline Proctor, director of the Arkansas Charter School Resource Center at the University of Arkansas.
“When they take the mass of kids and the number of schools on the improvement list, you're naturally going to be drawn to this area and Delta,” she said. Four of this year's 12 applicants would locate in the Delta; the remaining two are from Northwest Arkansas. In previous years, state law limited the number of open-enrollment charter schools in each congressional district to six. The legislature removed that restriction last spring, although there is still a cap of 24 charter schools total statewide (10 are currently operating, including three in Pulaski County).
Proctor — with the financial backing of the Walton Family Foundation, which endowed the resource center and awarded $20,000 start-up grants to several applicants — had her hand in most of this year's applications, from suggesting curriculum and assessment systems to wholesale design of the school. The result is applications that have quite a few similarities, although their overall programs have different focuses and different goals.
Open-enrollment charter schools are publicly funded, independent schools run by any non-sectarian, non-profit group — parents, educators, community organizations. (School districts can also apply to convert an existing school to a charter school operated by the district.) The schools can request waivers from various laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools, and are supposed to be held accountable for students' test scores in the same way that traditional public schools are. By law, they must accept any student who wants to attend, and hold a lottery if more students want to enroll than the school can hold. They're also required to demonstrate an “educational need” for the program they want to offer. The theory is that charter schools will promote innovation, and provide an alternative for students whose needs aren't being met in regular public schools.
Nationwide, the laws that govern charter schools vary widely from state to state, as do the numbers of charter schools. Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, and they're now allowed in 40 states. Charter schools have been legal since 1995, but actual charter schools were slow to appear, and the oldest currently operating dates only to 2001. Arkansas also has a much smaller number of charter schools than many states.