Baker Kurrus, interim superintendent of the state-run Little Rock School District, has filed his response to charter school applications in the district, chiefly expansion proposals by the eStem and LISA Academy charter schools. Renewal of the poor-performing Covenant Keepers charter is also up for review. Despite years of failure to meet proficiency, the Education Department staff recommended it for renewal.
He covers ground well-worn here. But it’s intensely detailed and calmly presented. If you have any inclination to an open mind about the debate, I urge you to read, if nothing else, Kurrus’ eight-page summary. He doesn’t flatly oppose the expansions. He asks, with an argument worthy of his career, for a detailed analysis for making a decision with likely damaging implications for the Little Rock School District.
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Kurrus answers to state Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who’s made few decisons — apart from choosing Kurrus as interim leader after the state takeover — that haven’t been in line with the “choice” agenda pushed by the Walton Family Foundation and other wealthy Arkansans. He carried that legislation as a senator and supported the effort defeated in 2015 that could have turned the entire Little Rock district over to private school management companies.
The charters and the Little Rock School District do well by affluent students, Kurrus notes. School “success” correlates with the economic situation of student bodies. The charter schools eStem and LISA have far fewer minority, poor, special ed and non-English-speaking students. When demographics are considered, the charters are “solid perfomers,” said Kurrus, but “not exemplary.” Little Rock actually does better by many students. Kurrus noted that the Henderson Middle School, a “failing” all-poor school, is often cited by charter backers as the reason for the need for new charters in western Little Rock. He notes that it far outperforms the Quest charter school in Pine Bluff, which unlike the majority white and economically advantaged Quest charter in West Little Rock, serves many poor and minority students.
The Kurrus response is important and I’m going to quote extensively. So read on if you dare. I also will include some of the attachments he presented in support.
Kurrus notes that eStem wants to expand in a part of town overbuilt with elementary seats and LISA wants to expand in a part of town difficult for “underserved” students to reach.
The new schools will transfer millions from the Little Rock School District to the charter schools. It will retain some local millage for the remaining students, but most of that is devoted to capital bond issue repayment. He writes:
The financial questions are not, in the longer term, answered by the amount of LRSD’s revenue transfers or losses. The primary questions relate to system efficiency, facilities utilization and construction, performance, and fairness under the unitary status rules. In the longer term, these are the considerations that are paramount. In the shorter term, the funding losses are real, and the drastic measures required will be painful and damaging without time to plan for them.
The real and immediate problem is that LRSD must still educate the students that remain, and these students will be more needy, as a percentage of the whole, than before the eStem and LISA expansions.
… The students who exit are more likely to be higher achievers. This compounds LRSD’s academic distress problems. The characterization of LRSD as distressed causes additional direct costs for school improvement specialists, and fuels a downward spiral in enrollment that further reduces revenue.
Kurrus raises a point that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation. We’ve seen little on this, except the not-surprising finding that middle class kids score better than poor kids. But here, we are creating whole school districts. Academics Plus is also moving to multiple campuses in Pulaski County. It’s inefficient duplication, Kurrus writes. He also applies some accountability standards you rarely see applied by charter supporters to charter schools. Example:
eStem’s expansion application describes new real estate investments for public charter schools which will cost about $2,021,572 per year for thirty years or so. The ownership of the lessor is not disclosed. The rates of return used to calculate the lease payments are also not disclosed. The bulk of these new investments will be made on expensive real estate in a part of town with declining student numbers (39% decline in the last 15 years). This same area already has five elementary schools within a range of 1.5 miles. See map attached as Ex. J. As previously stated, these existing elementary schools have thousands of vacant seats. See Ex. I. This does not appear to be a wise expenditure of public funds.
Perhaps this level of spending and duplication would be merited if the academic performance at public charters was compelling, but that is simply not the case. The results simply do not bear out the necessity, especially without some planning about how to use the duplicate facilities which exist now.
Comprehensive planning is necessary to provide public education services to the students who reside in LRSD.
Kurrus says these charters inevitably will isolate minority, poor, disabled and non-English-speaking students in Little Rock schools.
An analysis needs to be done to determine if there are there large numbers of students who are failing in North Little Rock School District, Pulaski County School District and LRSD who would succeed if enrolled in Covenant Keepers, LISA, and eStem. If so, the practices in those charter environments need to be transferred to the other public schools. Thus far, the available data does not show that the higher performing charter schools are employing practices which materially change projected outcomes. The raw data from all of the public schools, including the failed and failing charters, shows that disproportionate numbers of low income students, non-English speakers and students with disabilities correlate to lower levels of average achievement in schools where these students are enrolled. LRSD confronts this issue daily, and it is a challenge. Nothing should be done to make that challenging task more difficult.
So what should be done?
Kurrus suggests a “comprehensive, data-driven” analysis by the state Department of Education. It has never done this in willy nilly approval of charter schools (my words, not his.)
That analysis might validate expansion. It might argue for collaboration. But he said Little Rock, which can report some progress, is in a “delicate” position. If more proficient and advanced students depart the district for charters, it will be harder to make the remaining students proficient.
There is ample research which shows that students of differing levels of achievement who are blended in schools tend to have higher levels of achievement. If this is true, then isolating failing public school students would not be a preferred public policy…..
Covenant Keepers, LISA, eStem and LRSD need to be evaluated, with a view toward the future of each public institution. The evaluations should include demographic factors. Do the schools improve outcomes for students? Do the schools provide some students with public alternatives that may provide benefits or convenience to constituent groups, but little tangible benefits to students and the community at large? Even if some benefits do exist, how are these benefits weighed against the costs and risks of the multiple systems which have arisen without any collaborative planning? Is the State of Arkansas obligated to provide multiple general public systems of education, and can it afford to do so?
The charter authorizing statute gives preference to granting a charter in a district with higher than average poverty. Such preference would make no sense unless the proposed charter serves enough poverty students to lower the percentage of students of poverty in the host district. These applications do the opposite. The charter authorizing statutes give preference to an application for a charter which will operate in a district in academic distress. Such a preference would make no sense whatsoever unless the charter school in question serves low-achieving students in numbers sufficient to improve academic achievement averages in the host district. Otherwise the granting of the charter only increases the poverty in the host district, and pushes the host district deeper into academic distress. Granting the eStem and LISA applications as filed would increase the poverty percentage in LRSD, and push LRSD deeper into academic distress.
Here’s a comparison of demographics of Little Rock and charter schools.
Here’s data on students lost to charters from LRSD.
Here’s a comparison of some select middle school test scores.