Charter schools dominated discussion at the state Board of Education today.
First up was a petition to expand the eStem Charter School elementary school in downtown Little Rock (it would increase the 360 enrollment by 102). The request was approved, but not before some spirited discussion on the impact of charter schools on segregation of the surrounding public school districts.
eStem's leader John Bacon emphasized the schools' racial and economic diversity against the city as a whole. This was a little disingenuous. eStem is 44 percent white, versus 29 percent in the Little Rock School District. It is 35 percent poor (measured by eligibility for subsidized lunches) against 65 percent for Little Rock schools. Bacon chose to emphasize that the city's population was 49 percent white and that his was a majority-minority school (counting Asians and Hispanics together with black students.)
A lawyer for the state Education Department said the Little Rock School District had failed to demonstrate by evidence its fear that charters skimmed students from the magnet schools and majority-to-minority transfer programs the state committed to support to end the desegregation case. This was disingenuous, too. As Little Rock School District attorney Chris Heller noted, the state has refused the district's attempts to gather this information, which is in the possession of every charter school. It would demonstrate, too, how many of those students were already succeeding at existing schools before making the transfers.
Board member Brenda Gullett emphasized how charter schools, unlike other conventional schools, are able to send students away during the course of a year. It's an option not available to conventional enrollment schools. Speaking of results, Heller responded to earlier meeting boasts about eStem scores against the Little Rock School District as a whole. This is a comparison of apples to grapefruits. Heller said it would be better to look at third and fourth grade scores at a school with a comparable population. He mentioned Gibbs Magnet, a downtown school with similar economic and racial enrollment to eStem. Its students outscored those at eStem.
The motion to approve the expansion was made by Vicki Saviers, who helped found and is a former official of the eStem school. It passed 6-1, with only Gullett as a no. Board member Sam Ledbetter asked whether the board should seek more of the type of transfer information that Little Rock seeks. Gullett also pressed for this, but the department attorney seemed resistant. Board chairman Naccaman Williams finally directed the department staff to compile information of the sort requested by Heller.
Still to come: a possible revocation of the charter for the Little Rock Urban Collegiate Charter School. The board also voted to revoke the charter of the Osceola Communications, Arts and Business School at the end of this school year. It had struggled to recruit students, particularly at-risk kids it had targeted.