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Charter schools: who chooses? 

In the popular 1989 movie “Lean on Me,” about a Paterson, N.J., ghetto high school, Principal Joe Clark has all the troublemakers and under-performing students gather on the stage and he then kicks them all out of the school. With only the most serious students remaining, he restores his high school to its once proud position.

The movie, based on a real life situation, reflects pure fiction. Or does it? Is it possible to exclude the undesirable students and just skim off the best students to make elite, selective and even racially segregated schools? Can we, under current law, develop one school system for the “haves” and another system for the “have nots?” If you think this isn't possible, just look carefully at the charter school movement and its more extreme sibling, voucher schools.

In Arkansas we call privately operated charter schools “open enrollment schools.” In reality, are these schools truly open enrollment? Does every child have an equal opportunity to enroll? The first ingredient is that the child must have a parent who truly cares and monitors his or her education. It is far less likely that children from an impoverished single-parent home will have a parent who is aware of the enrollment hoops they must jump through to enter a charter school. How about the child whose parents are drug addicted or don't have the capability to enroll them in the charter school? From the very beginning, a charter school limits its enrollment to only the children of parents who are actively involved in their child's education. Any teacher can tell you that these are the children who will also be the most successful in a regular school setting. This produces a very subtle form of discrimination. In some cases the discrimination may not be so subtle.

Arizona has been in the forefront of the charter school movement and is a state with a wide range of ethnic diversity. Gene V. Glass, regents' professor at Arizona State University, is a critic of how charters have been implemented in his state and describes several instances of charters in neighborhoods dominated by Hispanic families yet with high percentages of white students and few Hispanic students. One example he cited was Fees Middle School in southern Tempe, Ariz., which enrolled 50 percent minority pupils while two blocks away the Tempe Prep Charter Academy enrolled only 17 percent minorities. He also found that of 1,012 charter schools, nearly half exhibited evidence of substantial ethnic separation Given the racial sensitivity of Arkansas, this situation couldn't happen here — or, could it?

It is interesting to look at data from the Arkansas Department of Education on the LISA Academy Charter School, located near the northeast corner of the juncture of Interstates 430 and 630 in Little Rock. The LISA Academy Charter School in 2008-09 had a student body that was 45 percent white, 32 percent black, 19 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic. The four Little Rock public schools located closest to the LISA Academy have white enrollments of 18 percent, 22 percent, 10 percent and 9 percent, and black student populations of 55 percent, 66 percent, 81 percent and 84 percent. The high school serving this area has only 8 percent white students and 79 percent who are black. In contrast to the LISA Academy's 19 percent Asian students, the entire Little Rock School District has only 2 percent Asian students. When it comes to poverty measures the LISA Academy reports approximately 22 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced price lunches, while the neighboring schools report 61 percent, 75 percent, 83 percent and 82 percent and the local high school reports a rate of 65 percent.

Could variations this great be a result of random chance? Or, are there subtle factors at work that result in charter schools not reflecting the community where they are located?

The response of charter advocates could be to point out that some charters are located in all black communities and therefore couldn't possibly discriminate. Let's go back to Joe Clark, because he definitely discriminated. He eliminated all but the most compliant and studious by kicking out the poorest and most at-risk students. Any teacher can tell you that all white students are not the same, all black students are not the same and all Hispanic students are not the same. If any inner-city principal could cast off children like Joe Clark did, there would be an instant change in the school's climate and performance. In reality this type of due process violation is not possible in a public school. But, a charter school has the ability to set up a system to keep better students.

Some of the most highly-touted charter schools are in the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) school system. This system serves about 20,000 students nationally and locates in the most impoverished inner-city areas. Their program typically requires all students to attend school from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. each day, attend every other Saturday, and three weeks in the summer. Can all children, especially the most at-risk, hold to this type of demand? Apparently not.

Jeffrey Henig of Teachers College at Columbia University reported, for example, that the KIPP Bridge College Preparatory school in Oakland, Calif., had 87 students who enrolled in the 5th grade. Of these, 32 moved out of the area and 30 parents removed their children from the school. This “student loss” phenomenon is not unusual for KIPP schools.

The KIPP Delta College Preparatory Academy in Helena-West Helena reports, according to state Education Department figures, a “student loss” rate in the eighth and ninth grade that is between three and four times that of the Helena-West Helena School District. The “student loss” occurring at KIPP would be a scandal if it took place at a regular public school, but charter schools seem to remain under the radar when it comes to serious scrutiny. This process leaves the KIPP schools with only the most dedicated students and parents, while the rest go back to public schools.

The lesson to be learned is that policy makers must be very watchful of what is occurring as a result of school choice. Do we as a society want to see our school system divided into two distinct social classes based on race, economics, family structure, or other factors that create one system for the “best kids” and another system for all “the others?” Although charter proponents tout school choice, in reality it may not be the student's right to choose a school, but a school's right to choose the students.

Paul M. Hewitt, Ed.D., is assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He's also a retired California school superintendent.

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