Baker Kurrus, who spent more than a decade on the Little Rock School Board and also spent a year as superintendent of the district after state takeover, submitted in writing to the state Board of Education yesterday his thoughts on what the state of Arkansas should do about the Little Rock School District.
Given that he was fired by Education Commissioner Johnny Key for resistance to continued proliferation of charter schools — and given the fact that that topic remains at the root of his concerns about the district — I suspect he’s correct in guessing his submission might not be read at the state department.
I happen to be an admirer of Kurrus, a lawyer and business executive, and supported his losing race for Little Rock mayor precisely because he does detailed homework. After study, he gives his conclusions without political gloss. That didn’t serve him well politically either as school superintendent or as a mayoral candidate. Unpleasant facts are harder to swallow than platitudes.
There’s so much of substance in Kurrus’ school review, beginning with his description of the operation of three large school districts — LRSD and the growing eStem and LISA charter conglomerates — in the geographic area of the Little Rock School District. It’s not efficient. His own studies have shown the charters have taken children who were “succeeding” (as measured by test scores) and steadily reduced the Little Rock population to a “failing” (as measured by test scores) cohort.
LRSD now has more schools which are branded by ADE as failing than it had in January of 2015 when the state assumed control. The simplest and most informative explanation of these so-called failures can be found in the demographics of the students who attend these schools. The so-called failing schools have concentrated numbers of students of poverty, students who have major disability, students who move frequently, students who are chronically absent, and students who do not speak English as a first language. If these concentrations are a result of state policies, combined with local demographics, the state must take bold action now. The city should also move to change the local demographics.
That’s just the beginning of the sort of deep thinking that the school situation demands. Study the relative success of a charter school operator (Quest) that failed in Pine Bluff but succeeded in Little Rock. Is it operational? Or a function of demographics? Let’s study it. Kurrus suspects, as I do, what we’ll find.
The current “system” which the State of Arkansas has created in geographical Little Rock is a haphazard, unplanned series of disconnected schools run by three of the top twenty largest school districts in the state. This dual system (or perhaps even triplicate system) is now grounded on the policy of school choice. No matter its etiology, the plain and clear result is a system which results in certain schools having overwhelming percentages of children of extreme need.
The equivalence of average test scores to school quality, in a percentile ranking system, has yielded a very predictable result. Schools which have lost high performing students, and which are now populated by students who face the most profound educational challenges, have been denominated as failing schools. This tag has been placed on the schools without a detailed analysis of the demographics of the students who are in those schools.
LISA and eSTEM have much different student demographics. Regardless of the reasons, and in spite of whatever lottery process which has been in operation, the clear result of the state’s policies appears to be the creation of an unconstitutional dual system. If so, the state policies which created this system must change, and any unwritten practices which have created the system must change, or the results in the failing schools will not change in any substantial degree.
We have learned that the control of the schools, and the other interventions, have not made a material difference. On the positive side, we can see that diverse student bodies tend to elevate the achievement of all students at all levels of proficiency. We can easily see that recruitment of high-achieving students to a particular school
elevates that school’s ranking, but at what cost to the remaining schools?
If the state wants to talk about constitutional mandates, so does Kurrus. He notes it requires efficiency as well as adequacy and equality. The current system fails. “Separate schools are never equal,” he writes.
Analyze the data to make informed decisions, he urges. That means more than assigning failure to a school serving an entirely at-risk population.
Look at the student profiles in all three Little Rock districts and compare levels of poverty, student mobility, homelessness, parental involvement, family support, serious student disability (compare time spent in the regular classroom; put some things, like speech therapy, in a separate categories from major behavioral and physical disability, etc.) and English language proficiency. Look at the data for students who have gone back and forth between the school districts. It would be easy, for example to track the students who left Terry Elementary (an A-rated elementary at the time in question) to attend the new LISA elementary which was placed just west of Terry several years ago. Terry did not change materially, but now has a lower rating. How many students who left to go to the new nearby charter were gifted and talented, and where did the siblings of those students attend in subsequent years? How many students have left the LISA school and returned to LRSD? What are the proficiency levels of those students?
b. Look at the student data on the new charter that is in the old Mitchell location. What are the achievement levels of the students who left LRSD to attend there? How many students who enrolled at the school have subsequently returned to LRSD, and what are their academic profiles?
c. Examine the lottery system for charter schools, and calculate the odds of achieving their student enrollment profiles if the lottery were a purely random lottery with all Little Rock School District students. Analyze the student outcomes, and student achievement in all school districts after disaggregating the data relating to student demographics. Do not use the blunt instrument of free and reduced lunch qualification. Delve more deeply to understand the nuances of income levels within this broad category, to include things like duration of residency at the same location, existence of reliable transportation, credit scores, utilization of public housing assistance, etc.
He urges an examination of the charter schools, particularly those that targeted the hardest cases. Have they succeeded where Little Rock failed? Also look at Little Rock schools that have succeeded with diverse populations. Yes, there are some. Might it be that diversity produces quality results?
His conclusion is my own — that a unitary, efficient system of education is the best course for public schools in this or any community. Local control can build that sort of system but care must be taken even then. He writes, most provocatively, that this could mean adding control of the large charter school systems if they are to continue to stand.
The state should require the three large districts in Little Rock to cooperate and share the challenges that go along with meeting the needs of all members of the community. Consider establishing meaningful elected local boards for the three large school districts that currently serve the LRSD geography. If current law would permit, consider one school board to operate all of the schools in these districts, and require that the schools serve all children, especially those of greatest need, in a coordinated, efficient and effective manner. Within current legal frameworks, work hard to avoid isolation of children of greatest need. (The attendance zone for Pinnacle View Middle School includes two Title I elementary zones, for example.) “Local control” of only LRSD is not true local control of public education in Little Rock. Think creatively to give a unifying and cooperative voice for public education in Little Rock. True local control would foster coordinated, efficient and effective education for all, and would build a sense of community in the city as a whole.
There’s more, including some specific school recommendations and predictions of coming problems for the new Southwest high school on account of the new STEM program in Northwest Little Rock.
I devote significant space to his thinking because I can. And also because I value his thinking. I also do so because, given the evident bias of the Hutchinson administration on the future in Little Rock and with schools generally, it otherwise would be destined for the round file.
If there be critics (Kurrus has plenty), bring them on. At least there’d be a discussion.
I’d heard from others about Kurrus’ prepared remarks and asked for them. When he sent them to me, he commented:
I drafted my comments before reading the American Educational Research study, but I have the same concerns expressed in that study [on segregation from dividing up school districts]. My comments are attached, for what they are worth.
The odd and unfortunate fact is that ADE needs to do some study and analysis before making a decision. The politics of all of this is clear, but there ought to be some study before the ADE makes a final judgment.
Everyone wants to control things. Most folks want the control, but not the responsibility and accountability. I could show ADE how to build an accountability model that needs to be in place for whomever operates any school.