State must face an old issue in pending charter applications | Arkansas Blog

State must face an old issue in pending charter applications

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WILL HE OR WON'T HE? Now that Johnny Key is running the Little Rock School District, will he support draining off more higher income students from the district to charter schools in majority white, upscale western Little Rock?
  • WILL HE OR WON'T HE? Now that Johnny Key is running the Little Rock School District, will he support draining off more higher income students from the district to charter schools in majority white, upscale western Little Rock?
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Cynthia Howell summarized pending applications for new charter schools, including five in the Little Rock School District, and touched in passing on an issue of historic and legal significance.

Applications for some 3,000 new charter school seats in Little Rock — these are free, nominally public schools — include another run by the Quest charter school to place some students (sixth grade) off Financial Center Parkway just west of Interstate 430 in a difficult traffic location and a LISA Academy elementary school off Bowman Road in western Litle Rock. eStem also has ambitious plans for a new school east of Interstate 30 and on the UALR campus, to add to its existing downtown location.

Little Rock School Superintendent Baker Kurrus,
who opposed expansion of charter schools in western Little Rock as a Little Rock School Board member, indicated his continued concerns in an interview with Howell, but says the Little Rock "school board" will make the decision on whether to oppose the new applications. That means state Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who functions as the school board since the state took over the district for low test scores in six of the district's 48 schools. The D-G quoted Kurrus:

"Everybody is running at our middle-income students," Kurrus added about the charter school planners. He said the eSTEM and LISA schools have a high level of student affluence — as indicated by eligibility for subsidized school meals — that is topped by only three of Little Rock's elementary schools, Forest Park, Jefferson and Roberts elementaries. Students from more affluent families typically score higher on state tests than students from low-income families.

"That's the secret to all of this," Kurrus said. "Look at who they recruit. Who do they enroll? It's going to be interesting from a demographic standpoint to see where these students come from. I guess they come from Little Rock [School District] and we have excess capacity already."

LISA made no bones about its aim. (Nor did it when it first set up a junior high in western Little Rock to skim higher demographic students from the Little Rock School District. Its founders made disparaging remarks about parents who kept their children in the awful Little Rock School District.) From the D-G on its latest expansion:

"Parents in the West Little Rock community are seeking alternative education," the application also said, citing 20 private schools serving more than 8,200 students and another 1,924 home school students. "Therefore, a public school option for these families is inevitable."

Alternatives. You know what that means. Schools for people like us. This isn't always a racial determination, by the way, but also an economic and cultural decision. If the state provides nearby and neighborly escape valves for thousands of children from higher income families with a commitment to meeting school standards, you can guess what type of students will increasingly be left behind.

Creation of new West Little Rock charter schools inevitably will encourage still more flight of white and prosperous families of all hues from the Little Rock School District (and encourage housing patterns that reinforce those divisions.) This has been going on here for better than 60 years. Official action that contributed to this cost the state a worldwide black eye in the 1950s and, later, billions in state payments as reparations for contributing to segregation in Pulaski County. Now, thanks to changes in courts, laws and attitudes shaped by billions in anti-public-school sloganeering by the likes of the Waltons and other billionaires, it's happening again.

Key was a reliable backer of Walton-financed education agenda items in the legislature — more charter schools, uninhibited school district transfers, antipathy toward teacher unions. It would normally be easy to assume he'd not want to stand in the way of any charter school applications in the Little Rock School District. There's good reason, for example, to believe he supported the unsuccessful Walton legislation that would have allowed the privatizing of the Little Rock district through charter school management companies.

But there's a wrinkle. For simplicity's sake, let's call it John Walker. The civil rights lawyer has a federal lawsuit pending challenging the state takeover of the Little Rock School District. As I wrote earlier:

The suit is likely to touch on the continuing failure of the district to serve poor, black children; the various ways that outlets have been provided for white students (preferential school assignments and charter school creation); the recent move to respond with alacrity to a Walton lobbyist's demand for a new middle school in Northwest Little Rock lest his patrons underwrite still more charter schools that damage the district; and more.

I make no predictions on the suit's chances in today's post-racial political/legal world. But it ought to complicate Johnny Key's decision on still more charter schools. He's responsible for running the Little Rock schools now. If they become a monochromatic institution of impoverished children from struggling families, history tells us their likelihood of improving test scores is not great. If that happens, the usual LRSD critics won't be able to point the finger at a black majority school board,. They'll have lily white former Republican senator from Mountain Home to blame.


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