by Max Brantley
Little Rock School District attorney Chris Heller has compiled a certain-to-be-controversial report to the School Board today on the impact of open enrollment charter schools in Pulaski County on the three public school districts. The schools enroll almost 3,000 now and they are authorized to rise to 4,500 by 2012-13.
The charter schools -- independent school districts, really -- have been approved by the state Board of Education without regard to the desegregation agreement the state entered in 1989, Heller says. They have siphoned thousands of students from the districts and, in the process, Heller said, created the "most segregated" schools in Pulaski County. Predominantly white in white Maumelle, predominantly black in predominantly black parts of Little Rock, for example.
In the process, they have made it more difficult for public school districts to comply with the racial balance rules required in the federal court desegregation plan.
Heller's report says the state's "unconditional approval" of open enrollment charters in the county violates the desegregation agreement. This is one issue the state has so far refused to address in efforts to bring the federal case to a conclusion. Heller wants federal Judge Brian Miller to review the issue and says future charter decisions must be reviewed to ensure they don't have a negative impact on Pulaski County desegregation.
Heller mentions, too, the adverse impact on school districts of some charter schools' propensity to attract better students who were already achieving educational goals in public schools. One school, the LISA Academy, was justified by a state Board of Education member on its appeal to students on magnet school waiting lists. LISA, however, was not required to meet racial balance requirements, a factor in creation of the waiting lists, while magnet schools are. The majority on the waiting list are black, but LISA is majority white.
The school district argues that charter schools have failed to produce proven innovative teaching methods, but have been used mostly as a way around state laws requiring certified teachers and compliance with fair dismissal laws.
To date, there's been no evaluation that indicates the charter schools have produced greater achievement by students than conventional public schools. While some have achieved high numbers on standardized tests, they have been schools that enrolled students who were already exceeding proficiency standards in conventional public schools. Studies haven't yet been done on progress of individual students, demographic groups of students, and school year advancement rates against their previous performance.