The state Board of Education voted without discussion this morning to remove Alpena, Brinkley, Hartford and Hermitage school districts from fiscal distress.
Still to come are appeals of approval and denial of charter school applications by the new in-department charter school review committee. The lead issue likely will be the Little Rock School District’s opposition to approval of two charter schools in Little Rock, including the Quest middle school for an upscale white neighborhood of Little Rock that seems likely to fall short of the school’s projection that it would primarily serve students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. The Texas charter school operator chosen to run the school — backed by Walton-financed charter school lobbyist Gary Newton — has also been criticized in a national study for its academic results elsewhere in the country. None of this bothered the departmental reviewers. Parents backing the Quest school don’t want to go to nearby Little Rock district schools, which lends a neighborhood school imperative to the charter/real public school debate. There are demonstrably fine middle and senior high schools in Little Rock. Advocates of Quest seem to argue, as much as anything, that they should be able to get money for a neighborhood school if they don’t like the ones available.
One parent who’s talked to me about her support of Quest acknowledges Superintendent Dexter Suggs plan to convert Forest Heights into a STEM school hoped to be a magnet for ambitious students. But she said there was uncertainty about how many seats would be available at that school. That, of course, is a situation that applies to charter schools, which theoretically must grant admission through a lottery. Board Chair Brenda Gullett noted today that she wished the Education Department did some random checking of the use of lottery applications by charter schools because of some reports that there had been “massaging” of the process in some cases. A department employee said it had received few complaints about lottery selection.
The Little Rock School District reiterated opposition to two charter school applications because they failed to demonstrate they’d address a need not being met or, in the case of the Exalt Academy approved as a K-8 school in
Southwest Little Rock, that it had not demonstrated sufficient support of economic viability. The Exalt plan is based on full enrollment at opening and future growth.
The Board voted not to review the Exalt charter school application. Board member Diane Zook, a dedicated charter school backer who’s helped in the organization of the Quest charter school, tried to argue that since Little Rock had agreeed to drop a federal legal court challenge of the segregative effects of state approval of open enrollment charter schools that the application should be approved. Board member Jay Barth, who voted to approve the Exalt charter, said there should be no linkage between those issues. Of course Barth is right.
In turning to the Quest school, Ellen Smith, an attorney for Little Rock noted that Quest now thinks it will hit a 50 percent poor student body, after originally estimating it at 78 percent. The district thinks the reach of poor children, because of the neighborhood and transportation issues, is exaggerated. Little Rock also says the application hasn’t demonstrated it will deliver the promised curriculum. It noted, too, that Newton had admitted the school was aimed at attracting affluent students out of the school district.
Edwin Strickland, a spokesman for Responsive Education Solutions, the private corporation that would run the Quest school, said all Little Rock’s questions had been dealt with at the authorization panel level. Sam Jones, an attorney for the Pulaski County School District, also appeared to speak against the application. He, too, questioned the ability of the school to deliver a significant enrollment of poor and minority children because of lack of transportation budget. Their promise can’t be reconciled with demographics of the neighborhood, he said. “If they can demonstrate that here today, more power to them.”
Zook, who contributed financially to the Quest effort, questioned whether the board should consider race or economics at all, which prompted a cheer from the audience. Vicki Saviers, a founder of the eStem charter school and long-time charter backer, praised the extensive presentation Quest made before the charter authorizing panel. She opposed a review. Zook seconded her motion not to review it.
Board member Sam Ledbetter said a review by the authorization panel shouldn’t control the board. He said he wanted to hear more about the merits because the state has experienced before unfulfilled promises to recruit needy students. The A Plus Charter in Maumelle is a prime example. Ledbetter said Quest set the standard and he wanted to drill down into how they thought that would be the model of their school. Board Chair Brenda Gullett said she, too, wanted to know more about how the student body would be composed and how the entrance lottery would be conducted. Member Jay Barth said he wanted more information on how they plan to meet budget requirements and also about the school’s impact on the Little Rock and Pulaski districts at a critical time for the two.
Saviers’ motion not to review the decision failed on a show of hands. Barth then moved for a review and his motion was approved by the board. I thought I heard that six votes were cast, but a Quest charter school backer in the room said the vote was 5-2. The board has nine members.