At an event Thursday night organized by state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) and other local legislators, six members of the state Board of Education, Education Commissioner Johnny Key, and Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore fielded questions from citizens for almost two hours about the future of the district and the growth of charter schools in the area. A crowd of over 100 attended.
With the LRSD still under state control, the evening was a rare opportunity for city residents to speak directly to Key, who acts as the district’s school board. The nine-member state Board of Education will ultimately decide when the district will return to local, democratically elected governance. The state board also holds the final power to approve or deny applications from charter operators seeking to open shop in Little Rock or elsewhere in the state.
Last week, the Education Department’s Charter Authorizing Panel gave preliminary approval to three applications from charter organizations hoping to begin schools in Little Rock (a fourth was denied). But the authorizing panel’s decisions are subject to review by the state board and likely will be taken up in October. Two existing charter schools in Little Rock, eStem and LISA Academy, expanded enrollment this school year, and eStem plans to keep adding more seats over the next several years; the eStem and LISA expansions were approved by the state board in March 2016.
Charter skeptics fear the unchecked growth of privately operated schools will erode the traditional public school system to the point of no return by drawing more and more students away from the LRSD. Meanwhile, a new state law that recently went into effect forces districts to sell their unused property to charter operators. Two shuttered LRSD campuses, the former Mitchell and Garland buildings, are proposed locations for two of the charter applications that will soon head to the board.
Unsurprisingly, many of the questions on Thursday concerned charters. “You’ll be receiving at least three three charter school applications that received the green light from that panel,” Eric Dailey, a former teacher and administrator, told the board members at one point. “What will it take for you to say ‘no’ to any of those applications?” Members Fitz Hill and Ouida Newton spoke of the difficulty of making decisions on charter applications, but no board member directly answered the question. Poore, however, indicated he would be urging the state board to turn down the proposals.
“As superintendent of Little Rock, I did speak against the expansion of charters last week. And one of the obligations under law is that the superintendent has the opportunity to send a letter to the state board and to the commissioner to share where I stand on charters,” Poore said. “I will be sending a letter to the state board.”
Poore also referenced a report submitted to the state board during its August meeting from a “stakeholder” group that it created to study, in part, the relationship between charters and traditional schools in the Little Rock area. The report warned of a “tipping point” in the growth of charter and private school seats that would eventually render the traditional public schools “unsustainable, first politically and then financially.” Though the stakeholder group said it was unsure when that tipping point would be reached, it recommended a pause in further charter expansion to allow for further study.
Few of those who took the podium spoke in favor of further charter growth, although some questions submitted anonymously (and read aloud by Sen. Elliott) voiced support for charters and school choice. One asked, “Should parents have the option to find the educational option that fits the needs of their children?” Board member Charisse Dean spoke up in reply: “My answer is yes … first and foremost, that responsibility belongs to the parent.”
Though state board members remained largely silent throughout the event, two key members separately told a reporter afterward that they were undecided about the three applications soon to land on their desk. Brett Williamson and Susan Chambers supported the expansions of eStem and LISA last year, but both indicated they were considering the stakeholder group’s recommendation to brake further charter growth, at least for now.
Williamson said he was “open to voting differently than I have in the past” based on “the reports we’ve gotten lately at the board level — and just hearing all the concerns from the community, the people. … My eyes have been opened.”
Asked whether he accepted the report’s premise about a tipping point in regards to charter seats, Williamson said, “I think so. But I still agree that parents have got to have a choice about where to go educate their kids. … Trying to find the line between that is the hard part.”
Chambers said the Charter Authorizing Panel and the state board need to begin evaluating charter applications in the context of the overall impact on the community, not just the merit of each proposal. “At some point, are we saturated?” she asked. “Right now I think we do a very good job at looking at each individual evaluation. I don’t think we have as much freedom as we need to look at all the offerings that we have across the community. I think that’s the next step … charter schools cohabitating with traditional public schools.” However, she wouldn’t say whether she believed a tipping point has been reached and said more data was needed. “That’s an important analysis, but it can’t be in absence of knowing across the whole community what the offerings are, and the needs, and the needs that are being met.”
Besides charter growth, the other big question of the evening was the return of local governance to the LRSD. Colton Gilbert, a Parkview High School graduate who now teaches at that school, told the state board that district patrons were frustrated with “vague verbiage about promising strides … we want concreteness and transparency.”
“There’s no word of when we get local control back,” Gilbert said. He asked for a sense of when state takeover would end.
Key told him that the “timeline we are working under is putting in structures and supports that need to be in place” within the district, and that there is “no timeline for a return to an election or anything else at this point. The LRSD originally was taken over because six schools (out of more than 40 campuses total) were deemed to be in academic distress; three of those schools remain in that category, as of the last complete round of state testing data. However, Key said, recent legislation may ease his ability to recommend that the LRSD return to local control even if all schools have not moved off the distressed list. The ultimate decision would still be in the hands of the state board.
Board chair Jay Barth noted a separate piece of legislation that could potentially delay the return to local control: yet another new law that requires school board elections to be held only concurrent with the November general election date or the May primary date. For example, should the state board make the decision in December to move forward with returning to local governance, the district would still have to wait six months before the election of a local board.
Barth, who was one of the board members who voted against the original state takeover in 2015, also pointed out that the board could return the LRSD to local control even without the commissioner’s recommendation. “I tried to get the board to consider that in May,” he said. “I was not convincing in my appeals.”
Dean explained her opposition to Barth’s proposal in May. “I was not comfortable at the time with returning LRSD to complete control at that time because … I think it’s important for LRSD to be as strong as possible. … I thought it best for LRSD to have that time to heal and recover so we do not end up in this situation again,” she said.