by Max Brantley
The Little Rock School Board tonight discussed at length attorney Chris Heller's recommendation that the district argue in federal court that the state of Arkansas has contributed to resegregation with approval of open enrollment charter schools. This is in violation of the 1989 settlement of the county desegregation case, he contends in a formidable legal brief.
Ultimately, the Board voted 4-3, on a racially divided vote, to authorize Heller to negotiate and litigate when he deemed necessary on enforcing the court-approved settlement. The motion was made by black Board member Micheal Daugherty.
The vote followed a motion that failed 3-3, with Board member Diane Curry abstaining, offered by white Board member Baker Kurrus. He called for 90 days of "intense"negotiations to see if the state and LRSD could settle the dispute.
Key development: Under Heller's recent threat of legal action, Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson appeared before the Board tonight to say that the state was willing to negotiate with the district on concerns about charter schools. Until tonight, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has summarily, even rudely, dismissed any such talk.
The action on charter schools followed a vote to approve a tough set of strategic goals aimed at student improvement. Board members Jody Carreiro and Melanie Fox said they were disappinted talk of the charter school dispute would get more attention in media than the positive step on school improvement. Kurrus, who represented the Board in the planning, said he remained upbeat about that effort.
Board member Fox worried at the outset of discussion about charter schools that there might be negative reactions to district action on charters. Heller said there'd undoubtedly be some from expected quarters, but he also said, quite correctly, that the district should be guided by the law, not opinion. He made a continuing persuasive case that the state has violated its desegregation agreement in poorly thought approval of what amount to independent school districts in Pulaski County -- to the clear detriment of all three conventional public school districts -- all in violation of controlling federal court orders.
The charters are whiter, composed of more prosperous students and, in several individual cases, dramatically out of sync with the local school districts in racial makeup. The state has stubbornly refused, through the attorney general and the Board of Education, to acknowledge the federal court order when it comes to charter schools. Instead, they've offered money to get out of court. Heller said he was sure the district could drop the charter question and receive $430 million or more over seven years. But this case isn't just about money.
Board member Micheal Daugherty contended that the charter schools are effectively publicly funded, unregulated private schools governed by boards that don't answer to the public. He said, "I am seeing children who are proficient and above -- educated in the Little Rock School District -- being recruited to these schools and they are getting credit for the work that is already being done in Little Rock."
Heller noted that Education Director Tony Kimbrell had conceded recently that charter schools had not been evaluated properly in the past, had not filed annual reports in most cases and generally not been held accountable. He has vowed to change that.
Board member Baker Kurrus said he had opposed the charter school law initially because he feared it would be misused and his fears were borne out -- particularly by early creation of schools in Pulaski County that siphoned off high-achieving white students. But he said charters alone aren't the root of the district's problem and he argued that the district probably could endure financially the student loss from the charters. Carreiro said legal action could distract from strategic goals and Kurrus said it seemed to strong approach at this time to a "political" problem.
Kurrus, who said he's in his last year as a board member (sad news to district supporters), said he didn't think litigation was an effective means of dealing with the problem because the state has responsibility over education and it can always argue that the LRSD has failed a number of its students as the reason for approving alternatives.
John Walker, attorney for black students, supported pursuit of Heller's motion. He said the state had, to date, proved "it will not listen to you" on charter school issues. He acknowledged however, that, for the first time, a representative of the attorney general's office told the board tonight that it was willing to negotiate on charter issues. Richardson was not more specific. If it's a meaningful offer, I'd have to agree it's worth considering. Walker said filing the court case would serve as deterrent to state action of the sort it has taken in the past and encourage meaningful negotiation.
Walker said the state has not been willing to negotiate before "in reasonable good faith."
"You can't ever get ahead if you're always getting behind," Walker said. "You're getting behind if you take your best students to go elsewhere."
Heller seemed to agree that state now has changed its tune -- after persisently refusing to discuss charters -- because of his motion.
Kurrus said it was ironic that the School Board would hear from the state's attorney general but the state Board of Education refused to allow Heller to appear before it to discuss charter questions. It "taints" the idea that the state is cooperative, he said.
Kurrus moved that the school district initiate 90 days of "intense discussion" to resolve the issue and he suggested hiring of John Walker to participate in discussions if necessary.
Then, he said, if the state doesn't respond in 90 days, "I'm willing to step on the pickle and see how she squirts." He said the Board could act sooner if the state didn't negotiate in good faith.
Daugherty asked how the Board could trust the state given its persistent refusal to talk with the district about anything but money. Board member Katherine Mitchell said the state Board (member Vicki Saviers was present tonight) approved just about any school for any reason and that it clearly didn't adhere to the charter school law. Heller affirmed this harsh view of the state, saying the attorney general's office in the past would talk with him about nothing but monetary settlement. The impasse prompted his 80-page draft legal action, he said. Kurrus praised it as something the state Board should read.
Board member Charles Armstrong said the district didn't oppose charter schools, it opposed the state's refusal to follow the law and hold schools to requirements in charters.
Assistant Attorney General Richardson mentioned some recent heightened scrutiny given charters by the state and alluded to Kimbrell's promises on the subject. But he also mentioned that he served many who supported charter schools. I wondered who he meant: The Walton family that is financing the eStem charter and which has a paid employee, Naccaman Willliams on the state Board? The Democrat-Gazette, vicious critic of all the School District endeavors and owned by another financial backer of charter schools? I thought the a.g. represented the people of Arkansas, not political subgroups, and was sworn to uphold the Constitution and state law, both of which have been abused in the state's rush to experiment with charter schools, particularly in Pulaski County.
Heller said state law allowed the attorney general to both negotiate or litigate with LRSD, so he didn't find tonight's motion difficult to follow. It sounded as if negotiations would precede a legal filing, but Heller said he feared too long a delay would allow the state to argue that the Little Rock District had waited until too late to object to the way charter schools have been created.