The discussion of charter school expansions today included references by charter school advocates to a reported 6,000-student waiting list at the eStem charter school, a waiting list supposedly heavily populated by minority students. The fiercest charter advocates suggest these are underprivileged students fleeing failing schools.
We have no idea if these presumptions are true.
I’ve yet to see a comprehensive examination of the waiting list. Is it renewed from scratch each year? Or are names continued year after year? What, precisely, is the composition of that list based on race, income, current school and current academic proficiency?
This is the sort of thing a truly comprehensive state Education Department review — to date non-existent — would be able to clarify.
But we do have some state figures that tend to disprove the assertion that a majority of those on the waiting list are minority students and that they include many students with special needs. Math indicates otherwise.
In theory, oversubscribed charter seats are filled by lottery. Math tells us that the students accepted to the school would reflect the demographic makeup of applications. But they don’t. One reason could be that the poorest families change phones and addresses often. Even a fair lottery check of names on a waiting list might favor stable families who remain at the addresses and phones they give on original applications.
This is what we know about composition of the Little Rock School District and the two charter school systems:
Little Rock 23,164 students
eStem 1.482 students
LISA Academy 1,525 students
Little Rock 4054 or 17.5% white
15,080 or 65.1% black
3,124 or 13.49% Latino
eStem 626 or 42.82% white
658 or 45.01% black
247 or 16.89% Latino
LISA 490 or 32.13% white
563 or 36.92% black
84 or 5.51% Latino*
*Asian and other categories constitute a higher proportion of LISA enrollment than at the other two.
Little Rock 17,350 or 74.9%
eStem 462 or 31.6%
LISA 624 or 40.9%
Little Rock 2,716 or 11.73%
eStem 108 or 7.39%
LISA 100 or 6.56%
Little Rock 2,855 or 12.3%
eStem 22 or 1.5%
LISA 50 or 3.28%
The point: Poor, special ed and non-English-speaking students are harder to bring up to proficiency on test scores.
The differences are likely greater than they already appear. Within each category there is a spectrum. Preliminary research by others indicates that Little Rock not only has a higher percentage of children in poverty but a much higher percentage in abject poverty. It not only has far more special ed students, but far more profoundly needy children. For example: Consider students the district must serve by law but who spend no hours in a regular classroom because of medical or emotional problems. Almost all students in that category are in the Little Rock District. The same for English language proficiency. Little Rock receives far more of newcomers with little or no English skills at all.
State Board member Vicki Saviers, a charter school advocate, seemed to criticize today those who cite the unfairness of using overall test scores at charter schools and the Little Rock School District to draw comparisons. It is fair to bring up these statistics. But she also was right that the issues ARE irrelevant to most parents. They simply want to send their kids to a safe environment in which they feel most comfortable.
The availability of “choice” is not necessarily a measure of the education on offer, however, despite charter advocates repeated assertions to the contrary. The test scores of similarly situated students prove it. Unfettered choice, though, guarantees a further concentration of difficult student populations of which Little Rock already has a disproportionate share.
Sen. Jane English, a Republican, wanted to know why parents couldn’t just send their kids wherever they wanted. The country once had a universal public school system based on the notion — if not always the delivery — that government had an interest in insuring equitable and suitable education for all kids. Nowadays, it’s every man for himself. Some can’t get to the lifeboats.