More fallout from the strange decision to call a special state Board of Education meeting today with an agenda that included motions to rescind earlier decisions to review staff recommendations to approve eStem and LISA Academy charter school expansions in Little Rock. Here’s what we reported yesterday.
The big news is that the rescission votes will not take place after all.
Board member Jay Barth issued a statement last night expressing his surprise at the calling of a meeting to consider his request of staff to compile information for the review. He said he’s routinely requested information from staff as a Board member without the need for a meeting on the request. The Education Department claims a rule requires this but it has not yet responded to my request for a citation of the specific rule. The department and Board member Vicki Saviers, in a note to me, blamed Barth’s request for putting the special meeting in motion. But that didn’t answer the question of how the request for ending the charter school review made it to Board chair Toyce Newton and then onto the agenda.
Advocates of the Little Rock School District have reacted unhappily to the addition of a rescission motion, which came from Board member Brett Williamson of El Dorado, an employee of the Murphy family that has helped finance the charter school movement in Arkansas.
We await results of an FOI request to the Education Department that I’m reasonably sure will demonstrate there were communications among board members about this special meeting. That would be a violation of the Freedom of Information Act.
And finally, in response to my question to Little Rock School Superintendent Baker Kurrus about the scheduled meeting this afternoon, he sent me a note last night without elaboration that said he expected the motions to rescind the charter school reviews to be removed from today’s agenda.
As I was working on this item this morning, the posted agenda for the meeting changed shortly before 7 a.m. Gone were the rescission votes. The only item on the agenda now:
Discussion of Additional Information Needed for March 31, 2016 Review of Charter Schools
Later in the morning, the Education Department sent notice to media abut the dropping of the agenda items on rescission votes at the request of the board member who’d requested them — Williamson.
This removes some of the stench that arose from this 11th-hour intervention by special pleaders, but not all.
Because really: Why would anyone object to review of additional information unless they feared what that information might be or simply opposed accountability for charter schools? Even if these proposals are eventually approved — which I expect them to be — we are long past due to have accurate information about, among others, the eStem waiting list widely cited as a reason to give them carte blanche on expansion requests. I want to know, for example, how a 66 percent black student application rate hasn’t produced more than a 40 percent black enrollment in a school where admissions are guided by lottery. Poor, special ed and non-English-speaking students are also of interest. In every category, eStem (and also LISA) has a much smaller proportion than the Little Rock School District. When your pool of applicants is more advantaged, it is a powerful advantage in education results. And, what are results in groups of students — white, black, Latino, special ed, poor and so forth. An average of disparate student bodies isn’t useful.
The Board meeting today also had included votes to rescind reviews of staff approval of the long academically troubled Covenant Keepers charter school in Little Rock and a charter in Imboden. Those votes, too, no longer appear on the agenda.
So, we await developments today. Meanwhile, here’s the statement sent last night byBarth, a Hendrix College professor who also contributes a political column to the Arkansas Times, and a formal objection from the Little Rock School District Civic Advisory Committee. First Barth:
In response to the comments from the State Department of Education and one of my fellow State Board members, I wanted to clarify that I did not request a meeting of the State Board in advance of our full hearing on the four charter proposals we voted to review last week. Instead, yesterday, I replied to an email from the Department asking for information any Board member felt was needed to make a more thoughtful decision at that hearing. This informal request process was one that we have used the entire time I have been on the State Board. Indeed, I’ve asked for information regarding matters before the State Board on any number of occasions.
Thursday morning, I received a call saying that a special Board meeting needed to be scheduled for the State Board to vote on whether such materials should be requested. When the agenda for the meeting was published, I was surprised to see the motions to rescind the votes from last week. Moreover, I am particularly frustrated by the statements today because they state that I “wanted to meet” on the topic in advance of the full hearing. I simply wanted more information so that we could all make a thoughtful decision on a matter that promises to significantly impact the public education offered in Little Rock and, therefore, the city as a whole. I am glad that such a healthy majority on the State Board recognized the seriousness of this decision through their votes to review last week. While as a State Board member, I make decisions impacting education across the state, I admit that I am particularly conscious of the impact of such decisions on my home city that I care about so deeply. This is an important moment for Little Rock.
The civic advisory committee that serves the Little Rock School District, now in state receivership, also weighed in:
To Members of the Arkansas State Board of Education (SBE),
On behalf of the Civic Advisory Committee (CAC) of the Little Rock School District (LRSD), we implore you to continue with plans for a hearing for proposed charter school expansions in the LRSD. No matter the outcome of your eventual vote, we believe that a hearing to fully consider the ramifications of this decision—whatever it may be—is justified by the number of students who will be affected for years to come.This is far from a routine decision, especially in the context of the LRSD being under state control and relying heavily on the SBE for guidance and support. Whenever an issue is especially contentious, as is this one, the potential to accept the outcome and move on to future collaboration is heavily dependent on the perceived fairness of the process, and so we appeal to your sense of fairness to allow a hearing so that those who will be impacted by this decision may communicate their concerns to you in a public and transparent manner. While we have worked faithfully this school year to engage our community and overcome mistrust and disengagement, a reversal of the plan for a public hearing will exacerbate the doubts we have encountered about the integrity of public education governance in the LRSD. All public school students need us to minimize division and maximize collaboration, and decisions made without opportunity for public debate sows more doubts and divisions among those who continue to care about public education.
We do not understand the benefit for the LRSD and its students to reverse course and rescind plans for a public hearing. Instead, we believe a hearing benefits both outcome and community perception as it demonstrates thoughtful consideration of all relevant points of view and complexities involved in this decision. Please do justice on this issue and to the community and students served by faithfully and thoughtfully considering your decision with your original plan for a public hearing.
Dionne Jackson and Greg Adams
LRSD Civic Advisory Committee
Other members of the committee also have written the Board, including Dr. Anika Whitfield, who said she hoped the state Board didn’t plan to drop an “atomic bomb” on the Little Rock District.