Despite objections from the Pulaski County School District and a lackluster record, the Academics Plus Charter School in Maumelle won approval from the state Education Department’s charter authorizing panel to expand its enrollment cap from 650 to 850.
Founded in 2001, A Plus was the state’s first charter school and it was pitched as an alternative particularly to close the gap for poor and minority students not succeeding in existing school districts.
It’s never met that goal. It has had scant minority enrollment and its percentage of poorer children, as measured by subsidized lunch eligibility, is below that of the surrounding Pulaski County school district. Jerry Guess, superintendent of the Pulaski district, in opposing the enrollment increase noted that there are abundant seats in neighborhood schools in Maumelle and that those schools exceed A Plus’ performance in many areas. Academics Plus lags behind the state as a whole in virtually every category of ACT testing and it has particularly fallen short in its promise (not a pledge, but a vision, school leader Rob McGill said) to have a high percentage of achieving students as measured by standardized tests, particularly in math. In year-to-year performance, the school has actually declined in several areas.
McGill pitched the school as a “choice” for Maumelle residents. That seemed enough for the charter authorizing panel, which voted unanimously to approve the expansion. Opponents can appeal that decision to the state Board of Education, but the new law that took full authority on the decision from the board has produced great deference on the board’s part to the authorizing panel.
Bottom line: A 13-year failure by Academics Plus to meet the oft-stated goals of a charter school with superior performance and proven outreach to at-risk kids has no consequences in Arkansas. A Plus continues to have its charter renewed and even expand. Regulation of these schools has become meaningless. If enough parents demonstrate desire to be separated from local public schools, they will be given state money to do so. Performance isn’t relevant.
It doesn’t hurt to have a couple of legislators on your side. Rep. Mark Lowery and Sen. David Sanders spoke for Academics Plus and its innovative education, though no specifics were readily apparent, certainly not as measured by performance.
The end of racial considerations in Arkansas school decisions also works in Academic Plus’ favor. It can now say it is flatly prohibited from considering race in enrollment decisions. That naturally works in favor of creating a school with a small population of minorities and poor children in a community lacking in both that is far removed from poverty pockets in the county.
The panel also was expected to approve a charter renewal for the Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy charter school. It drew no objections. UPDATE: It was done, but for a three-year period. The Little Rock Preparatory Academy charter also was renewed.