The state Board of Education voted today to review applications to significantly expand two Little Rock charter schools, eStem and LISA Academy. Both proposals were approved last month by a charter authorizing panel composed of Education Department staff but the state board has final authority over any decision made by the panel. It could have let the panel’s recommendation stand; instead, after hearing a number of passionate comments from the public, it opted for review.
The review means a final showdown before the state board — likely next month — on the issue of whether to allow these two charter operators to ramp up their operations over the next several years, thus expanding their student capacity by several thousand seats and dramatically increasing competition with traditional public schools in the Little Rock School District.
The LRSD was taken over by the state Education Department last January, and district advocates fear that an expansion of charters will make the already monumental task of school turnaround vastly harder, if not impossible. Charter advocates point to a unmet demand for seats at their facilities, which are running at capacity.
Among those urging a further review by the board were state Sen. Joyce Elliott and state Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock, Bill Kopsky of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Patty Bates Abraham from the Little Rock Public Education Foundation. They said the affected public in Little Rock needs a chance to weigh in on the decision, and that the board had a special responsibility given that it voted to take over the LRSD.
Elliott asked the state board to “have a full blown hearing so the public has an opportunity to come and speak on the issue.” Given the magnitude of the decision’s potential effect on education in Little Rock, she said, it “belies the point of the [charter] authorizing panel” to assume its permission is sufficient. “They’re there to review whether this is a plan that is viable and makes sense [for the charter school]. … You need to hear from the public at large before you make a policy decision.”
Tucker said, “I’m not here to advocate on … whether these charter applications are approved or not. I’m here to advocate for a particular process. … The way I view it, it’s the state board’s job to determine whether those applications are viable for the city of Little Rock. If we have a plan for the city and part of it is to expand eStem and LISA Academy then so be it — but let’s have a plan in place.”
Two Republican senators, Jane English of northern Pulaski County and Alan Clark of Hot Springs urged approval of the charter school expansions.
“I don’t know any place else in any part of our society in which we only have one choice … we don’t live our lives that way. Where we want to shop, where we want to eat, where we want to go to college. Why should we not let parents decide on schools?” English asked. However, when state board chairwoman Toyce Newton pointed out that the issue at hand was whether the state board should hold a review hearing — rather than the merits of the charter proposals themselves — English seemed confused. Newton asked if she supported the decision to review or not. “That’s fine, yes,” English said.
Sen. Clark said his own education was cut short, which he blamed on a lack of school choice. “I stand here before you with a little bit of shame. I can’t help it. I stand here before you as a state senator with a high school education. The real shame is that … I was a National Merit Semifinalist. To this day, I still can’t tell you what I needed to do to become a National Merit Finalist, because no one ever told me at the school I was at. What’s even more of a shame is that the school that gave me that education, that made me a National Merit Semifinalist, was three miles from my home. But the state of Arkansas said I couldn’t go there anymore. The state of Arkansas said … my family, myself and my parents, we weren’t the ones that should make that decision. I have to tell you that this affects real people and real lives and they never get to go back and change.” Clark also extolled the virtues of competition. As a manager of a retail hardware business, he said, “we’re kind of the charter school. You know, Home Depot and Lowe’s are the big public schools. … But we do just fine, thank you. And Lowe’s gets better and Home Depot gets better and I get better. Every day.”
School Board member Diane Zook moved that the board not review the staff decision, thus allowing the charter expansions to proceed unimpeded. Brett Williamson seconded. But board members Jay Barth and Mireya Reith argued for a further review.
“I think this board does have a special obligation to get it right, with the unique position we’re in with the state takeover,” Barth said. “I think we have to take ownership of this decision, and we can only take ownership with a full hearing.”
Reith said, “I do think we owe this district … a hearing when everyone can attend,” and suggested it be held during the evening or on a weekend date, rather than the normal Thursday or Friday morning state board meeting times.
Charisse Dean, a recent Hutchinson appointee, first seemed to indicate she was against review. “For me it comes down to whether or not there is a demand for the expansion of the charter school,” she said. Then, however, she indicated she favored giving the public more time for input: “In the spirit of community and allowing people to have a say before the final decision is made, I think it is probably a prudent thing to do.” Dean voted for the review, but implied she would ultimately vote to authorize the expansions; her main concern was whether an additional month of delay would detrimentally impact the plans established by eStem or LISA.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘detrimental,’ but any delay slows down our progress,” eStem CEO John Bacon replied, when asked whether adding more time to review the decision would be a problem. EStem’s plans don’t call for adding new seats in the 2016-17 school year; it would add around 400-500 students in 2017-18, he said, and continue expanding from there. (Later, LISA administrator Luanne Baroni told the state board that “timing is a bit critical for us. We are looking to open the new elementary school this fall.”)
Vicki Saviers, who helped establish the eStem school, recused from the eStem application.
Zook’s motion to not review failed, 5-2, with Joe Black and Susan Chambers joining Barth, Dean and Reith. On the motion to review, Zook joined the majority for a 6-1 approval of review of eStem.
Similar remarks were made on the LISA Academy application. Additionally, Ruth Bell of the League of Women Voters of Pulaski County urged a further review to consider local concerns about the “divisive” issue.
Saviers returned for the LISA discussion and said she’d been “disheartened and frustrated by the charter versus district conversation.” She decried a “zero sum game” of competition between the camps. She said the board had to consider every child, and suggested the Little Rock School District seek waivers from state law and regulation to allow it to behave more like a charter. “I challenge the LRSD to consider giving their schools under academic distress the same set of waivers that charter schools have and realize that level playing field we talk about,” she said.
Saviers joined the majority to vote to review LISA. The vote was 7-1, with only Williamson in opposition.