The state Board of Education will decide today whether to accept a staff recommendation to allow expansion of the eStem and LISA Academy charter schools in Little Rock or to first study the applications further in light of resistance from the Little Rock School District and others.
The political lobby powered by Walton, Hussman, Stephens and Murphy fortunes is making this out as a choice “for the kids,” with an absence of evidence that this is anything like an either/or proposition.
A careful analysis of student demographics and scores could show that a desire for charter schools isn’t always found in failing students or schools and that the charter schools have little to show by way of better scores or innovative techniques when fair comparisons are made. That’s my belief.
The state Education Department, which now is in charge of the Little Rock School District, should make its decision on something more than the bromide that “choice” must be better. We already know “choice” in Little Rock has sent tax money to corrupt and academically failing schools, to the detriment of “the kids.” eStem and LISA aren’t in the corrupt or failed category, but they benefit from whiter and higher income student bodies and lack a showing of superiority when like groups of students are compared. When a charter middle school enrolls a bunch of already-achieving higher income students from Little Rock’s Roberts Elementary, it is not a validation of charter schools that those students continue to score proficient on tests.
The Education Department should study these issues more thoroughly than they have to date. It is unfair to all, beginning with kids, to make decisions based on bromides, not facts.
Today’s vote will be close, I believe.
Donna Massey, leader of the Arkansas Community Organizations, has written about the negative impact of the expansion on the Little Rock School District. Read her letter following a letter from Bill Kopsky of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, which is calling for more study and details some of the facts that need consideration:
Dear Arkansas Board of Education,
My name is Bill Kopsky and I write to ask you to vote to review the Charter Authorizing Committee’s approval of expansions for eStem and LISA Academy charter schools.
First and foremost I’m Dad to a 5 and 3 year old who attend Rockefeller Early Childhood Center in LRSD. It is one of the gems of education in Arkansas and I encourage you to visit. My children will be in Little Rock schools for the next 15 years. Their future and the future of their friends and peers is in your hands.
I am also the director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. The Panel was founded in 1963 by Little Rock mom’s who risked their lives and their livelihoods to desegregate schools across the state and work for better educational opportunities for all children. That work remains central to our mission today.
There are three brief points I want to make.
First, this is the most important policy decision that LRSD has faced since you assumed responsibility for our District last year and it will have far reaching consequences. You chose to take responsibility for our District and remove our locally elected school board. You are now our only representatives of government. I believe it is your duty to the citizens of LRSD to give this issue a full hearing, for you to hear testimony and consider evidence presented by all sides, and to make sure the final decision is one made with the best interests of Little Rock students, their families and our whole community. There is too much riding on this for you to defer to a staff committee.
Second, when you consider the expansion proposals, I think there is a probability that you may conclude that the timing for an expansion of eStem and LISA is wrong. Little Rock Public Schools were taken over just a year ago, their superintendent was put into place only 10 months ago. They need time to stabilize and see many of the reforms they are implementing through.
These proposed charter expansions will remove 3,000 students from LRSD, cause a massive disruption, force the closure of numerous schools across the district and the layoff of hundreds of teachers and staff. I do not believe the Charter Authorizing Committee properly considered these impacts. At this vulnerable time in LRSD’s history, it could well spell the end of the school district. We believe a great community needs a great school system and that LRSD is on the path to getting there.
Third, when you consider the expansion proposals, I think there is a probability that you may conclude that the proposals threaten to further segregate Little Rock schools, which would have significant moral and legal implications.
Please consider these facts:
According to data from the Arkansas Department of Education, eStem and LISA enroll far fewer students of color than the Little Rock School District. eStem has a student body that is 45% African American. LISA has an African American student population of 37%. Little Rock School District on the other hand has an African American population of 65%.
eStem and LISA enroll far fewer students who are in poverty. Only 31% of eStem students qualify for free or reduced price lunches — fewer than one in three. LISA has 42% of their students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch. Little Rock School District on the other hand has nearly 3 out of every 4 students, 74.9%, who live in poverty.
The Little Rock School District also enrolls far more students with special needs than eStem or LISA. eStem has a mere 1.5% of their students who have limited English proficiency. LISA has only 3.3% of their students who have limited English proficiency. Little Rock School District has 12.3% of their students with limited English proficiency, more than 8 times the percentage of eStem. If you consider special education students, only 7.4% of eStem students are in special education programs, compared to 6.5% for LISA and 11.8% for LRSD.
These large disparities in student populations between LRSD and the charters proposing to expand cannot be explained by accident or by statistical anomaly. Differences this large can only be explained by practice and policy. I have heard proponents for eStem and LISA claim that they are open enrollment schools and that they are making no intentional efforts to segregate schools. That may well be true, but the results of their enrollment shows that they are unintentionally segregating schools quite effectively.
The fact is that eStem and LISA are not enrolling student bodies that reflect the greater Little Rock public school community, and this drift towards segregation by race, income and ability is of great concern to us. This is a founding principle of our organization. Segregation was wrong in 1963, it is wrong today and it will still be wrong 50 years from now. If eStem and LISA want to be taken seriously as potential competitors to LRSD, then it is their responsibility to ensure that their policies and practices result in a student population that is reflective of the Little Rock public school community.
It is simply immoral and likely illegal to concentrate students of poverty, with disabilities, with special needs and of color in a traditional public school system while offering more affluent and connected families access to a perceived better alternative. Again I acknowledge that eStem and LISA dispute that this is what they intend, however the data proves that it is exactly what they are producing.
Some eStem and LISA supporters have accused our organization of being against parent choice or of having a political agenda in our opposition to these expansions. This could not be further from the truth. The Panel supports school choice and charter schools when they are transparent, accountable and do not lead to segregation. Our position has been consistent on this issue for decades. This is not a political matter to us, it’s one of values. Some charter schools are fantastic options — some serve as laboratories of innovation for students who have special needs and some are committed to fairly representing the whole community where they reside. The proposed expansions of eStem and LISA Academy fail these tests.
I read some comments to you that suggest that choice and competition is always good. Again I submit to you that if you study this assertion you may draw a different conclusion. You may see that it’s not good when it’s not a fair choice or competition. You may conclude that it’s not good when it’s not a transparent choice or competition. You may conclude that it’s not good when it’s not an accountable choice or competition. You may conclude, upon consideration of the vast majority of educational research, that there are far more powerful education reforms at your disposal than overhyped notions of competition.
Finally I want to conclude by stressing my investment in the success of all students in Little Rock. I was opposed to the takeover of LRSD a year ago and I urged several of you to vote against it – with mixed results. I understood and shared much of your frustration, but I believed the takeover would make progress more difficult. Nonetheless I respected your vote and afterwards I was one of the first voices calling on people across the district to work together to seize the opportunity that you created as imperfect as it might be. I had an op-ed published the week after your vote that was titled Don’t Give Up on LRSD.
I helped raise money from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the Fruehauf Foundation and my own organization to pay for a facilitator for the Civic Advisory Council, to pay for community engagement forums which are still ongoing today, and to pay for data analysis of LRSD challenges. I’ve volunteered countless hours and our staff and leaders at the Panel have helped every time we’ve been asked.
And most encouragingly, we are not alone. The takeover has brought out new volunteers and re-energized old. Teachers and staff have taken painful cuts to help the effort and have been bending over backwards to work collaboratively with the new LRSD administration. The work of grassroots citizens across LRSD to improve the lives of our students is awe inspiring and matched only by the need to do more.
I hope you will honor the work of so many Little Rock residents to improve our schools by giving the proposed expansions of eStem and LISA Academy a full and fair hearing. Thank you for your service and commitment to meeting the needs of every Arkansas student. Please email or call me or any of us at the Panel if we can ever be of assistance to that end.
Yours for a better Arkansas,
Then there was this from Massey:
Dear State Board of Education Member:
We are writing to urge you to call for a public review at your April meeting of the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision to allow eStem Public Charter Schools and LISA Academy to expand their student enrollment. A little over a year ago the State Board of Education took over the Little Rock School District (LRSD) because six schools were in academic “distress”. Expanding charter schools in the City of Little Rock will not deliver a better education or more educational opportunities to the students who attend the “distressed schools”. The anticipated loss of almost three thousand students to these charters and the public funding that goes with those students will weaken rather than strengthen efforts to improve the education that children receive in the Little Rock School District.
Allowing the charter expansion to move forward without a serious review of its impact on the LRSD confirms the suspicions that residents living in less affluent neighborhoods south of I-630 have about the true motivation behind the takeover of our school district: That it was never about improving student achievement in “distressed schools”, but about pleasing wealthy business interests. You cannot say you are intervening to help improve the district then one year later take action that will knowingly harm the district and weaken its capability for future growth.
The majority of charter schools in the state are located in Pulaski County. The Little Rock School District has 13 charters operating within its boundaries. Charter schools were originally designed to be places where innovation and experimentation would be used to develop programs that could be implemented to solve some of the challenges faced by traditional public schools*. Instead charter schools now use taxpayer dollars to compete with public schools for students rather than working with school districts to develop an overall plan to provide a quality education to ALL students. The expansion plans put forth by LISA Academy and eStem run counter to the original mission of charter schools and come at a time when all available educational resources need to be put towards improving educational outcomes for low-income students in Little Rock.
The demographic differences between the student body at the LRSD and eStem and LISA Academy are stark. Students at the LRSD are majority low-income and majority black while most students at eStem and LISA Academy are not eligible for the free and reduced cost lunch program and black children are in the minority in those schools. The eStem and LISA Academy plan to increase their enrollment will make our schools segregated by attracting more affluent students away from the LRSD.
The expansion of eStem Public Charter Schools and LISA Academy will have a negative impact on the LRSD. The State Board of Education took over the Little Rock School District without a clear and public plan to improve the educational outcomes of students who have fallen behind. The eStem and LISA Academy expansions have come at a time when improving student achievement in schools in the LRSD should be our top priority rather than making space for more charter schools that will compete with the LRSD for students. That is why we are urging the State Board of Education to call for a review of the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision to approve the expansion of LISA Academy and eStem Public Charter Schools and to study the impact of the expansion on the Little Rock School District.
Arkansas Community Organizations