Charter schools got cold feet about taking over urban schools | Arkansas Blog

Charter schools got cold feet about taking over urban schools


A CHALLENGE: Charter operators find the going difficult in Memphis' Achievement School District.
  • A CHALLENGE: Charter operators find the going difficult in Memphis' Achievement School District.

Maybe defenders of the Little Rock School District did Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Johnny Key and the Walton "school reform" lobby a favor by defeating their bill that would have allowed privatizing of the school district. It might have produced some eventual embarrassment.

An interesting story from Education Week details how national charter school management companies — including KIPP, which has been granted near sainthood status by some in Arkansas — aren't so enthusiastic about taking over struggling urban school districts on the same terms that conventional public school districts must operate.

This is, to me, an old story. I've begged repeatedly for such charter advocates as Walton-paid lobbyists Luke Gordy and Gary Newton, Walton ally and state Board of Education member Vicki Saviers and many others to take over a "failing" Little Rock school exactly as they find it. Go to Baseline Elementary. Give them the building and the existing student body and turn them loose. Apples to apples.

They don't want to do this. Charter schools depend on self-selected populations. Even where they target at-risk populations of poor minorities, they get an edge from committed parents looking for more for their children and willing to make the transportation, time and other sacrifices necessary. A parental buy-in may be ingredient number one in a successful school, after classrooms full of already-proficient middle class kids.

Charter schools also find ways to send away students who don't get with the program. Conventional public schools have no such freedom. They MUST take what they get, no matter how far behind, no matter how dysfunctional the parents, no matter how disruptive the student.

Education Week reports that three charter school companies, including KIPP, have scrapped or scaled back plans to take over schools in the Memphis "achievement school district," a state creation just like that planned in the Hutchinson- and Walton-backed legislation to privatize Little Rock.

Some of the challenges that have confronted charter-management organizations in Memphis echo concerns from charter network leaders five years ago, when many were reluctant to get involved in federally driven school turnaround efforts. At the time, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan exhorted them to play a key role in the Obama administration's $3.5 billion initiative to raise achievement in the nation's most chronically failing schools, but ultimately, only a small number of CMOs opted to do so.

"I think every charter-management-organization leader would be the first to say that it's a tremendous educational challenge," said Joshua L. Glazer, an associate professor of education at George Washington University in Washington who is studying the Achievement School District, or ASD. "Even national networks who are used to working with disadvantaged communities would say the level of need in Memphis is very high."

Charter schools don't like level playing fields. See Walton lobbyist Gary Newton, who led the formation of the Quest charter middle school because of the supposed failure of several all-black, all-poor Little Rock School District middle schools. He created a middle school outside the Little Rock school district, in ritzy Chenal Valley, with a majority of middle- and upper-income non-black kids. What do you bet they do OK on the first round of tests this year? What do you bet Newton will tout his superiority to that raggedy school full of black kids just down the road at Henderson? What do you bet his charter outfit, a Texas group, isn't interested in taking over Henderson as is, where is?

They have charterized New Orleans. By honest assessments, it's been a failure, if standardized tests scores at the bottom of the entire state count.

Back to that Memphis "Achievement School District."

The ASD was created by the state to turn around Tennessee's bottom 5 percent of schools. Since 2012, it has taken over 23 schools and handed the majority to charter operators. Most of those schools are in the city of Memphis, which is part of the Shelby County school district.

But rather than starting from scratch with a small group of families, as most CMOs are accustomed [a practice known as cream skimming by critics], the operators have had to take on students already in the schools' attendance zones. Although the takeover deals usually come with a building—something charter schools across the country struggle to obtain—CMOs also inherit the challenges.

Only one in six students in schools eligible for takeover read and write at grade level, 16.3 percent qualify for special education, and 96 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

"You've got charters that have been doing this for years, and they've gotten great results from Day One because it is easier to open a school where the families pick you than to do neighborhood-conversion work," said Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD, who founded YES Prep.

Also, see KIPP, which isn't leaving Memphis, but wants to stay and expand on its own terms:

KIPP currently has seven schools in Memphis. The network was given the opportunity to move an existing KIPP school of 6th graders into a state-labeled "priority" school, or one that falls into the bottom 5 percent. KIPP would have absorbed the 7th grade the first year and the 8th grade the following year as those students moved up. When Shelby County district officials made taking over all grades at the same time a condition of the move, KIPP decided not to go forward, according to network officials.

There's lots more in the article, including some defense of the charter schools. Sure many of them run good schools, even as good as some Little Rock schools. I had to laugh at a reference to "intense media scrutiny" as a pressure deterring charter operators.

I'd like to see a charter school operate in a city where the dominant medium hammered them daily for real and imagined shortcomings. Take Little Rock. Here, an editorial writer at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — in the face of the forced resignation of an incompetent plagiarist as school superintendent — ignored the superintendent and used the departure to denigrate black people generally and one of the superintendent's critics specifically. This followed a week of news coverage mostly ignoring the superintendent's manifest problems. The gentle farewell for an incompetent was a pretty good indication that Suggs was anticipated to be a puppet for publisher Walter Hussman and others who support wrecking a democratically governed Little Rock School District.

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