by Max Brantley
Yesterday came a measured ruling from Judge D. Price Marshall, who has inherited the aging legal dinosaur. He has allowed Pulaski charter schools to intervene, on narrow grounds, in the Little Rock School District's pleading that the state of Arkansas has broken its 1989 desegregation commitment by insufficient attention to segregation caused by creation of open enrollment charter schools in the county. The charters have been particularly damaging to the magnet and interdistrict transfer programs the state agreed to finance and encourage in settling the case in 1989.
Judge Marshall recognized the charters' obvious relevance. But he's not going to allow the charter schools to attempt to relitigate the 1989 desegregation settlement 22 years later. He will not allow them to attempt to undo racial enrollment goals established before the Republican-led Supreme Court decided the United States had become color-blind and race no longer was a permissible factor to consider in school assignment. Opening this litigation foray would have added years and years to the case. I'm sure the anti-LRSD crowd would have missed the irony of a huge increase in litigation prompted by people who love to complain about the federal lawsuit.
As I've said before, the Little Rock School District has much merit in its argument, particularly in the early days of charter school approval in Pulaski County. But this issue isn't all about race and I think a settlement could address money, school boundaries and charter concerns — with some give and take by all parties. Read on if you're a school wonk:
The Huckabee-era state Board of Education was so beholden to the big money behind charter school creation that it approved them without a thought to their demonstration that they would supply unprovided education (a requirement of state law) and without a followup thought to whether they had met the promises they made in their establishment. New state board members have tightened state oversight of charters significantly.
Little Rock might, however, have waited too long to bring this challenge. Some of the worst offenses were in the very beginning. For example, the majority
white non-black LISA Academy was set up in upscale western Little Rock. Its organizers created a majority white, majority middle class school seemingly intended — based on comments by some school organizers at the time — in part to avoid what they saw as an undesirable element in the Little Rock schools. LISA certainly couldn't prove they provided math and science instruction unavailable in the Little Rock District, with its historically high-achieving science and math offerings.
It was the same with the Academics Plus school in Maumelle, nominally designed to reach disadvantaged and minority children. They never met that target and became, first, a neighborhood school option for Maumelle residents who didn't much like the Pulaski County School District — this was before construction of two new schools there in recent years.
eStem, the Walton- and Hussman-backed charter school is making most of the noise about the Little Rock School District. This is the outfit that hired the failed Little Rock Superintendent Roy Brooks to serve as a bloody shirt for the anti-LRSD forces to wave, then sacked him after he'd served his PR purpose. To its credit, it has attempted to bring minority students into its mix on its downtown campus, but the overall numbers tell the diversity story that persists as a community-wide education issue.
The Little Rock School District is 67 percent black and 71 percent of its students qualify, on account of family poverty, for free or reduced-price lunches. Academics Plus is 19 percent black and 33 percent school lunch; LISA is 37 percent black and 35 percent free lunch; eStem is 47 percent black and 32 percent free lunch. In short, Little Rock is much blacker and much poorer than these paragon charters. A number of minority black charters have been established. They've been fraught with problems and generally replicate the Little Rock, state and national experience — poor students have a hard time closing the achievement gap. All these charters had shortcomings this year in meeting annual yearly progress as measured by the rising standards on standardized tests.
So, while the charter schools desperately want to take race off the table in Pulaski County to preserve the strong white enrollments that make the schools attractive to some parents, the elephant in the room is the low-income student. Poverty is the great determinant on education performance. The fewer poor students the charters — or any schools — have, the more likely they are to succeed. Again, take a look at the No Child Left Behind figures for the charters in Arkansas. Where they fail to meet targets — just as many public school districts fail — it is most often with poor and minority students. Compare apples to apples and you have a hard time finding outliers in school performance anywhere in the country.
But let's have these arguments in court by all means. And let's take a long look at what "success" means in the charter schools to the big-shot legal mouthpieces intent on tearing down every fiber of the Little Rock School District, despite its many bright spots amid the acknowledged failures. Does it mean they've succeeded in educating well-off white students? Big deal.
Even if the law dictates the state can't be hindered by racial considerations in pouring public tax money into creating duplicative administrative school units in Pulaski County, let's do consider income in the state's obligations. Let's have the judge consider whether it's a fair game to let schools with unforgiving standards — students and parents must meet homework, classwork and attendance contracts, plus extended school days, or they can be thrown out — be given the advantage of disproportionate enrollments of advantaged kids. Give me a big enough head start and I can win a 100-yard-dash race, too.
Opening the charter school door to intervention might not be a happy day for the state, by the way. It and the charter schools have been fighting release of charter school data (particularly about where students have come from) under specious privacy grounds. A thoughtful federal judge, which Judge Marshall clearly is, can figure out a way for full access to ALL public school data — charter and conventional — without compromising an individual student's privacy.
All of that said: I still think it's time for a settlement although parties with widely divergent aims would have to make significant compromises. The three Pulaski school districts and the state can work a phase-out of payments. But it probably should include some, if not unlimited, continuing financial commitment to magnet schools. This workout might include a restructuring of school district lines to eradicate the Pulaski district and create a Jacksonville school district. This is a hot political potato, but it neatly solves a huge problem. The Pulaski district, a misshapen oddity of history and disaparate constituencies, is currently under state trusteeship and far short of reaching desegregated status. Let's disappear it.
A settlement might also include some commitments by the state to be sensitive to improper aims in charter school creation — particularly creation of havens of privilege that guarantee the worst possible student makeup of schools left behind. In the future, the Supreme Court perhaps has made racial considerations impossible. But it has not made it impossible to consider students' economic background. That's the groundbreaking approach taken in Wake County, North Carolina, and it has merit here. Let's not allow some the benefit of exposure to all economic classes, while segregating have-nots in education ghettos.