As part of his monthly report before the state Board of Education this morning, Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus asked the panel to consider the practical impact on the LRSD of two proposed expansions of existing charter schools in Little Rock, eStem and LISA Academy.
EStem, which is currently located in downtown Little Rock and has a sizable waiting list, announced plans in August to build a new high school on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus. It’s on an aggressive growth trajectory: John Bacon, CEO of eStem, said at the time that the system aims to serve 5,000 students by 2025, from its current enrollment of 1,452. A separate charter system, LISA Academy, has a proposal to open a new elementary in West Little Rock which will also soon be before the state.
As the state-controlled LRSD labors to turn around its six schools in academic distress — and also address other challenges district-wide, including aging facilities and the coming loss of millions of dollars in state desegregation funding — the district’s situation won’t be made any easier by the expansion of charter schools. Every child sent to a charter rather than to a school in the LRSD amounts to thousands of dollars of per-pupil funding gone from district coffers. Plus, since students from families that choose charters are more likely to be academically on grade level or above, increased charter competition tends to bleed the district of higher-performing students.
“You have some decisions on your plate,” Kurrus told the board in regards to upcoming charter applications, although he did not mention either eStem or LISA by name. “That should ask you to do some thinking, to seek some data.”
The superintendent said that the charters in Little Rock aren’t just isolated schools anymore: “They’re school districts now. They’re big, they want to grow.”
And while he said he’s happy to have competition, Kurrus questioned whether it’s a good idea to foist another challenge on the LRSD at this crucial juncture, considering the state has taken the task upon itself of improving the district. The state Board of Education voted to take over the LRSD in January, dissolving the local school board in the process. Kurrus began running the district in early May, hired by Education Commissioner Johnny Key and approved by the state board.
LISA Academy’s proposed expansion site would be on North Shackleford Road in the Nichols Furniture building, not far from Terry Elementary, often cited as one of LRSD’s success stories. Terry is rated an “A” school, Kurrus said, despite having a student body that’s majority-minority and overwhelmingly low-income. It’s hard to imagine that a new charter elementary right down the road wouldn’t make life harder for Terry.
“You have to decide if you want a charter school right down the street. It’s 45 seconds away [from Terry] if you drive there,” the superintendent told the board.
Kurrus said that out of 21 LRSD fifth graders from Don Roberts Elementary in the 2014-15 school year who went to LISA or Quest Middle School (another charter in West Little Rock) for sixth grade this school year, almost all scored Advanced on their state standardized tests, the highest of four performance ranges. None scored Basic or Below Basic, the lowest two categories, and only a handful scored Proficient, a middle category. Out of the 42 scores — each student has separate score for math and literacy — 37 were advanced.
In other words: The median student headed to a charter school isn’t the same as the median student educated by the LRSD.