Collaboration with charter schools urged in LR School District report | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Collaboration with charter schools urged in LR School District report

Posted By on Tue, Aug 1, 2017 at 8:03 AM

The state Board of Education will review Aug. 10 a report submitted by seven-member "stakeholders" group appointed in June 2016 to study the future of schools south of the Arkansas River in Pulaski County and to particularly consider collaboration between the public school districts and explosively expanding charter schools.

The group, well, urges collaboration. The community is "hungry" for fair play, it says. They suggest a theoretically neutral state education cooperative for Pulaski County, to do the planning that such agencies do in other parts of the state. They suggest a variety of ways to promote a better understanding what schools offer so parents can make informed choices.

The group acknowledges the divide that exists between conventional districts and charter schools and says enrollment may be reaching a tipping point in Pulaski County, with the huge expansions of eStem and LISA.

In Pulaski County, if the number of public charter school seats and private school seats continues to grow while enrollment in the traditional public school districts continues to decline, which is the current situation, the traditional schools will reach the tipping point that renders them unsustainable, first politically and then financially. The State doesn’t control the number of private schools in the county, but it is the sole authorizer of public charter schools. With that weighty responsibility, the State must understand how and when a tipping point occurs and its relationship to a zero sum game, which in this community means that every new public charter school seat is one less traditional public school seat and the dollars that go with it.

Mr. Baker Kurrus, former LRSD superintendent, addressed the State Board and also this Group. In a very clear argument, he explained that the tipping point was passed with the approval of hundreds of new seats in two competing charter school systems within the very footprint of the LRSD. His presentation to both the SBE and Stakeholders was a strong one.

We haven’t made an independent assessment of whether Mr. Kurrus is correct that the State pushed LRSD past the tipping point when the SBE approved the eSTEM and LISA school
system expansions in March 2016. Nevertheless, we believe such a tipping point exists and that ADE neither knows where it is nor has any strategy to avoid it

Past and current actions of those now in charge, I'm sorry to say, indicate there's no interest in avoiding this tipping point.  In 2015, the very forces that now control most political power in the state very nearly passed legislation that would have allowed privatization of the entire Little Rock School District. As it stands, we have four large school districts south of the river — Little Rock, Pulaski County, eStem and LISA — and numerous other tiny school districts in the form of autonomous charter schools.  These are parallel operations in the same geographic area and they have little to show by way of differentiation in what's offered academically. (The bigger charter schools are much whiter and higher income than Little Rock schools.) To the extent the charters wish to collaborate it will only be to gain further advantage. The study group noted that charter schools had long ago moved from their original intent — meeting specific unmet needs and serving unmet areas — to merely being an alternative to real public schools with comprehensive facilities and programs and open to all comers.

I just can't envision a warm reception in anything but words to this report from the powers that be.

Interesting irony. The group discouraged talk of combining the Little Rock District with the part of Pulaski County south of the river. This could diminish the political strength of black residents, the group said. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the Pulaski School Board fired its superintendent and lawyer because they were amenable to discussing such a combination. The objection there was from white board members who wanted no part of association with the majority black Little Rock School District.

I've given short shrift here to a 53-page report that reflects an enormous and thoughtful investment of time and toil by the study group, chaired by Tommy Branch. I just can't share the optimism about it expressed by state Board Chair Jay Barth in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette . I think it will be filed on a long shelf laden with well-intended school documents going back at least to Judge Henry Woods' overturned decision to consolidate the Pulaski districts three decades ago. This report is entirely too fair. A level playing field is not what the Waltons and associated "school reformers" want.

Antwan Phillips, a Little Rock lawyer on the study group, also submitted a separate concurring statement urging a serious study of why parents choose public schools or charter schools and asserting that the state Board of Education, to show it's serious, "must" consider community concerns in any future plans for the Little Rock School District. "If the ADE/SBE fails to recognize the recommendations and efforts of community groups, then I anticipate that it will lead to further disenfranchisement and distrust in our community," he wrote.

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