Before diving into the muddy waters of charter school expansion — water that becomes oddly clear when you reach the bottom — it is a good idea to know what lies beneath the surface. That means considering the well-researched data put together by Baker Kurrus, superintendent of the Little Rock School District.
Two charter school operators in Little Rock, eStem Public Charter Schools and LISA Academy, have expansion proposals that will soon be considered by the state Board of Education. Between them, the two schools hope to enroll 2,957 new students in the coming years, 75 percent of whom would likely come from the LRSD. This would assuredly result in the closing of several LRSD schools. It would also make eStem and LISA de facto competing school districts within the LRSD, but with less diverse student bodies.
Seventy-five percent of LRSD students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. In contrast, eStem has only 32 percent low-income students and LISA has 41 percent. The expansion of eStem and LISA will drive the poverty rate of the LRSD's student body up to nearly 80 percent.
Twelve percent of LRSD students receive special education services. eStem and LISA have only 7 percent special education populations. The LRSD is 65 percent African-American and 18 percent white. eStem is 45 percent African-American and 43 percent white; LISA is 37 percent African-American and 32 percent White.
Beyond the numbers, it is also important to understand the grand mission of charter schools as originally envisioned — a mission that is also embraced by fierce supporters of traditional public schools.
In a 2012 article for Commons Magazine titled "After 20 Years, Charter Schools Stray from Their Mission," David Morris explained the motivations of those who first conceived of and supported the promise of charter schools: "Groups of teachers and administrators who wanted to innovate and try new things would band together and little laboratories of education would emerge. ...The idea was simple: anything valuable culled from these experiments could be copied by the district. ..."
It is clear that that original statement of purpose is at odds with the expansions proposed by eStem and LISA. The intention behind the first charter schools was to strengthen traditional public school districts, not compete with or undermine those districts' ability to provide a great education for all. Nevertheless, Morris wrote, "Within a decade the goals of experimentation and innovation were replaced by a focus on kudzu-like growth. Charter schools were less and less viewed as a way of improving public schools and more and more seen as a direct competitor and eventual replacement for them."
Today, we are witnessing a well-resourced public relations campaign to convince Little Rock that charter school proliferation is the answer for what "ails" public schools. This is unfortunate and misleading. While I respect every parent's decision to do what they consider best for their children, I simultaneously ask all parents to be concerned about all children. Regardless of your feelings toward the LRSD, most children in our city attend its schools and will continue to do so. Don't you want those students to be as well educated as your own children? If so, doesn't that mean all district schools need to at least approach being as good as the schools your children attend? How can that happen if the LRSD is being undermined by a steady loss of students to expanding charter schools? How can the Little Rock School District put in place a credible plan for the future if it's being pulled apart at the core?
The expansions proposed by eStem and LISA starkly exemplify how the missions of charter schools have gone way off track. All of Little Rock, including those who advocated for the state takeover of the LRSD, should take a stand to help improve all public schools. That means requiring charter schools to be what they were meant to be — laboratories of innovation, not competition.
The bottom line is this: The rapid growth of eStem and LISA will further racially and socioeconomically segregate the LRSD and will make it virtually impossible for the district to emerge from state takeover. Join the effort in asking the state Board of Education not to approve these charter school expansions at such a tenuous time.
Joyce Elliott of Little Rock is a state senator representing District 31.
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