The Arkansas state Board of Education is deciding today whether to continue authorization of the charter school permit for the Covenant Keepers College Preparatory School in Southwest Little Rock.
UPDATE: It will keep its charter.
A departmental panel recommended revocation of the charter school’s permit in April after citing governance, financial and academic problems. Questions also were raised about the $138,000 salary paid the school director.
The school argued today that past problems had been remedied or stated inaccurately. Both the director, Valerie Tatum, and a lawyer for the school, Jess Askew, asked: “Why are we here?” They contended the school got a three-year renewal a year ago, its students were making progress academically and the school had a healthy cash fund balance. Askew conceded that its operating management company — whose records aren’t accessible to the state Department — had received an infusion of cash from the Walton Family Foundation. That likely helps explain why a negative $120,000 balance a year ago turned into a $120,000 positive balance currently.
The explanation prompted Board member Jay Barth to ask whether the state Board should never be concerned about negative financial numbers because the outside management company could always be expected to be a “piggy bank.” Askew said charter schools, which don’t have a local property tax base, depend on the private sector. “There are people who are willing to help charter schools and thank God for that,” he said. Askew works regularly in school “choice” issues of interest to the Walton Family Foundation.
Department officials recounted months of delay in attempting to get underlying documents to explain credit card charges and reimbursements. They reported that the school had complained of being asked for too much information.
The school presented reports purporting to show — based on a complex mathematical formula — how the school’s students (grades 6-8) had made better progress than some similar schools in the Little Rock School District, but still lagged behind the state as a whole. Board member Diane Zook, a reliable advocate for charter schools, was asked her opinion because she works on a committee that monitors struggling schools. She said she wouldn’t say she was “pleased” with the school’s performance, but said, “it was going in the right direction.”
Financial questions continued, including lack of evidence of proper tax filing documents for employees and people who received vendor checks. When Askew likened the inquiry to Joseph McCarthy tactics, a state department employee noted it was merely citing the school’s own documents.
On academics, Barth made the point that, while growth is important, the proficiency standard is the standard by which schools are currently judged. The case for progress was made by Sarah McKenzie, an employee of the Walton-backed Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas which essentially functions as a charter school advocacy organization. The Little Rock School District was taken over for six of 48 schools failing to meet the proficiency mark. Covenant Keeps has continued to operate since 2008 despite a failure to meet proficiency standards (half of a school’s students must meet a test cutoff score.)
Covenant Keepers serves a predominantly poor and minority student population. That is the same circumstance found in the three Little Rock schools that remain below proficiency standards. The state Board of Education and Education Commissioner Johnny Key
Board member Susan Chambers was sympathetic. She said there were no “red flags” it seemed, but a relationship problem between the department and school on unanswered financial questions. Tatum said she felt “demeaned” and “attacked” by department staff. She
Member Jay Barth said the perpetual academic issues were the primary concern to him. Despite promises, proficiency has not come to fruition. “I reach a point where I think there’s something systemic here,” he said.
Board member Fitz Hill wanted to know how anyone could assure children would be placed in a high-achieving classroom if the charter school was closed.
Member Charisse Dean said an absence of objections to the charter and satisfaction from parents argued that the school was doing its job.
The hearing began at 10 a.m. and continued through the noon hour. I’ll try to update later, but have to be away for a while.
UPDATE FROM LINDSEY:
In a public comment period, Little Rock City Director Joan Adcock said that Latino parents felt safe at Covenant Keepers and urged the board not to revoke the charter and make life more difficult for Latinos in Southwest Little Rock.
Tatum said, if the board did not revoke the charter, she would remain in leadership for one year while working with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that assists charter schools, and its director Scott Smith. The organization is heavily financed by the Walton Family Foundation to help charter schools.
Chambers made a motion not to revoke the charter and ask the school to provide additional reporting on academic performance and growth in the fall. The motion was unanimously approved.
UPDATE FROM MAX:
Dr. Anika Whitfield
I was very moved by both of your deep expressions of commitment to supporting Covenant Keepers Charter School during the special session today during the State Board of Education meeting.
It is my hope that you will be equally passionate about supporting the return of local control to the LRSD immediately and that you will speak up on behalf of the students, parents, school employees and community supporters of Franklin, Hamilton, Wilson and Woodruff Early Childhood Center to keep these schools open as well.
You both crafted great arguments for supporting a school to remain open based on public support, based on no real outcry to have schools closed, based on keeping students in a low teacher:student ratio setting where the environment was not only welcoming, but has wrap around services that aim to meet the needs of a student population that is uniquely marginalized.
Franklin, Hamilton, Wilson, and Woodruff not only have all of these same recommendations, but they are not in academic distress nor performing below proficiency. All of these schools are well supported by their community and parents. All of these schools provide educational, physical and/or mental health resources for their students.
None of these schools have been asked to be closed by parents nor community.
It is my hope that you will show your strong advocacy for these four schools in the LRSD to remain open and that you will also work with other directors to restore local control through an elected form of governance immediately.
Our students in the LRSD are just as marginalized and worthy of your compassion, consideration, and support.
Peace and Blessings,
Dr. Anika T. Whitfield
BOTTOM LINE ON THIS STORY: A charter school that has never achieved academic proficiency is allowed to keep its autonomy, despite numerous financial questions. But the state Board retains control of higher performing Little Rock schools. Key difference: Walton money and support in the form of direct cash infusion, aid from the Walton-financed Arkansas Public School Resource Center, aid from the Walton-financed charter school promotion unit at UA, aid from a lawyer regularly employed in charter school and Walton-backed school “choice” issues.