Lawyers. The state Board of Education clearly thinks that Little Rock's children need more lawyers.
The state board approved big expansions last week for two Little Rock charter schools, eStem and LISA Academy. Because the decisions invite further desegregation lawsuits, the state board likely condemned a new generation of Little Rock kids, in both charter and traditional public schools, to growing up in a court-supervised education system.
A year ago, in this same space, just after the state takeover of the Little Rock School District, I wrote that we couldn't give up. Today, as frustrating as it is, we still can't give up. Families in the LRSD and in charter schools have to see we have one community and every child is our responsibility. No child or family can ever be seen as an enemy. But the future just got a lot harder.
Baker Kurrus, on the job less than a year but already the first competent superintendent anyone at LRSD remembers, calmly dismantled the charter schools' cases. He was joined by Little Rock parents and legislators asking for a pause to make a comprehensive plan that could unite the various parties.
They presented data showing eStem and LISA charter expansions will do irreparable harm to the vast majority of Little Rock's children. They showed that the charters serve mostly affluent students at the expense of the most needy kids. They showed that eStem and LISA don't offer Little Rock families a fair choice — segregating students by income, race, disability and English language proficiency. They illustrated that expansion would create three separate and unequal school systems in Little Rock, which is immoral and illegal. They showed that eStem and LISA are mediocre schools, not terrible, but often outperformed by LRSD schools with similar demographics.
The state board ignored the evidence, ignored the plea, and went blindly bumbling back to Faubusland. They said they wanted to give eStem and LISA students more choices but ignored the fact that the expansions will take choices and chances away from LRSD kids.
Some state board members seemed shocked that Kurrus would put principles above politics and responded by calling him a rookie. They encourage competitors to take the LRSD's best students, but say stop whining and get to work.
Finally, more than a year after they took over the LRSD, the state board and Education Commissioner Johnny Key finally acknowledged they are responsible for making a long-range plan for Little Rock schools. They called for collaboration between charter schools and traditional public schools. Then, by blithely authorizing the expansions, they nearly guaranteed a wave of litigation that will make collaboration and planning almost impossible.
Little Rock is now on the path of New Orleans, Philadelphia or Detroit. Anyone who sees those cities as models for prosperity needs to have their head examined. "Come to Little Rock — we're just like Detroit, but with more tornadoes and mosquitoes," is going to be a huge sell.
So where do we go next? Despite the setback, there are things we can do.
First, Little Rock doesn't have an education problem as much as we have a poverty problem. There is plenty we can do about that. Real neighborhood revitalization and supports for families would pay huge dividends for our city and our schools. Our city needs a plan for strengthening our neighborhoods.
Second, we must keep fighting for research-based solutions we know will improve education for every student. Quality early childhood education needs more state funding. We need to create quality afterschool and summer programs. We have to address food and housing instability. We have to improve discipline policies and keep creating diverse, desegregated schools.
One can only hope the state board will hold eStem and LISA accountable for the charters' promises to be more inclusive and to collaborate with the LRSD — but the past leaves little optimism.
Finally, while some people try to segregate our city, we have to find ways to build meaningful relationships across the boundaries that divide us. That dialogue must lead to reform of systems across our city and state, or it will be hollow. Parents, students, educators and community members have to create a positive path forward. Our poor teachers have been blindsided yet again. Both the LRSD and charter schools have some hard decisions to make in coming years, with or without the courts. Those decisions will be much better if they are informed by our full community.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
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