The state Education Department panel responsible for authorizing and revoking charters in Arkansas has approved the expansion proposed by Little Rock’s eStem Public Charter Schools.
By a 6-1 vote, the charter authorizing panel approved eStem’s plan to open a new high school at the UALR campus and a new elementary and middle school at 400 Shall Street, near the Clinton Library. The proposed expansion would more than double the current number of students that attend eStem, raising the cap on the charter school’s capacity over the next several years from its current enrollment of 1,462 to an enrollment of 3,844 by the 2018-19 school year.
Inevitably, the state Board of Education will have the final say on this question. Decisions of the panel can be appealed to that body, and considering the contentious nature of eStem’s proposal, that’s bound to happen.
Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus and others associated with the city’s traditional public schools have expressed opposition to eStem’s proposal and another major charter expansion proposed by LISA Academy, which the panel will hear later this afternoon. Supporters of the LRSD say the aggressive expansion of charters will undermine efforts to remedy problems in the district, which was taken over by the Education Department in January 2015 for low academic performance in six of its 48 campuses.
The crux of the debate is the fact that a much smaller proportion of eStem’s student population is “economically disadvantaged” as compared to the demographics of the LRSD. That’s not to say eStem is racially or socioeconomically homogeneous — it isn’t — but rather that traditional Little Rock schools serve a far higher percentage of students from low-income homes, students who are black or Hispanic, students with disabilities and students who don’t speak English at home. According to 2013-14 data, about 34 percent of eStem’s current enrollment receives a free or reduced lunch based on family income; about 72 percent of LRSD students fall in that category. (I wrote about eStem’s plans and its potential effects on the district for the Times last October, although some details of the charter’s proposal have changed since that story was published.)
Several members of the charter authorizing panel said today that they had reservations about eStem’s ability to serve the city’s economically disadvantaged kids effectively. ADE Assistant Commissioner Eric Saunders asked eStem CEO John Bacon whether the charter operator had any goals for increasing its population of kids eligible for free and reduced lunch.
“We’ve set a goal of about 50 percent,” Bacon said, arguing that the school’s presence on the UALR campus would encourage enrollment by low-income and African American families. But, he said, eStem can’t choose students on the basis of income. “We don’t know when we pick students from the lottery … it’s an open enrollment process.”
Saunders also expressed concern over transportation as a barrier to enrollment for low-income families. EStem provides free bus transit passes through Rock Region Metro, Bacon said. But Saunders pointed out that parents of very young children especially might balk at putting their child alone on a city bus. (Bacon said the school would look into providing adults to accompany such students if needed, but added, “To date, we have not have one family say, that I’m aware of, ‘we’d love to come to your school but we don’t have transportation.'”
Assistant Commissioner Ivy Pfeffier said she’s wrestled with the decision, but ultimately decided to support the expansion. “We want the Little Rock School District to be successful. Some of the things that have helped me today is [that] this is going to be phased in over time. The location will encourage economic diversity. I think it’s a very unique and wonderful opportunity for high school students. I think the gradual phase-in also gives some time for the Little Rock School District to think about some innovations, and we can encourage partnerships and provide support as needed.” Ultimately, Saunders also supported the motion to approve eStem’s amendment.
The lone dissenting vote was Annette Barnes, another assistant commissioner for the department. “I am at a loss in this situation,” she said after her ‘no’ vote. “The complexities of issues involved in this request are too far reaching with too many unknown consequences … for me to comfortably make a decision at this time.”
The Little Rock Public Education Foundation expressed its opposition to the expansion in a letter to the panel, saying in part:
We wish the best for eSTEM and LISA Academy, but their best should not come at the expense of students and families who remain committed to the Little Rock School District. To recommend charter school expansion, especially at this pivotal and vulnerable time for the district, would undermine the ability of the district and the State to engage in short and long-term planning in any meaningful way. In the midst of the State’s mandate and efforts to ‘right the ship’ of the district, how does that happen if the Little Rock School District is cast about upon a sea of uncertainty?
The ball is now in the court of the state board, which next meets on March 10 and 11.