Columns » Max Brantley

Charter chicanery

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The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts has applied to open a grade 7-12 charter school in Little Rock in 2008-09. Its justification: An “educational option” for students in Pulaski County.

But Pulaski County already has plenty of options. Charter schools are supposed to serve unmet needs. Parkview Arts and Science Magnet is top-notch. North Little Rock boasts a fine comprehensive high school with a superlative drama program. Mills High School is one of the top schools in the country for advanced placement courses. Central High School offers a huge selection of demanding courses and regularly produces a state-leading crop of National Merit scholars. The LISA Academy, a charter school with grades 6-10 focusing on math and science, will be a full high school by 2008 and hopes to open a North Little Rock junior high. There’s ASMSA itself as a boarding school option.

The conventional public schools also offer a diversity of race and economic backgrounds that charter schools rarely match. Sadly, it’s often the lure of “people like us” that attracts parents to even malfunctioning charter schools.

This school would serve the expansionist bent of the School of Math and Science, which currently offers only grades 11 and 12. It’s often had a hard time filling its 250-student capacity and has long wanted a “feeder” junior high to help. Rural kids have been more willing than big-city kids to school in Hot Springs.

The school would mean a huge capital outlay plus ongoing operational costs. It also would skim the cream of local students, a disproportionate number of them probably white (ASMSA had a 9 percent black enrollment last year). You’d think the state, a defendant in the Pulaski County desegregation case, wouldn’t want to encourage resegregation. You’d think UAMS and UALR, mentioned as two potential partners, wouldn’t want to diminish hometown schools merely to establish a duplicative program.

But politics is at work. The chair of the Math and Science school’s board of visitors is Luke Gordy, who heads a Walton Foundation-financed education lobby that is dedicated to establishing charter schools, promoting merit pay and otherwise upsetting the conventional public school order, particularly in the Little Rock School District. Gordy has no love for Little Rock schools, particularly since a political change made the school board less receptive to Walton-favored school gimmickry.

The application has been shepherded by the Walton-financed charter school development arm at the University of Arkansas, itself the beneficiary of $300 million-plus in Walton spending. For expert assistance, the school can rely on the Walton-financed education “reform” department at UA. One potential local partner, UAMS, has received bundles of Walton money. A Walton Foundation employee, Naccaman Williams, sits on the state Board of Education and shamelessly votes on proposals backed by his employer.

The charter movement has been hurt by poorly run, underperforming schools in Arkansas and nationwide. The backers need success stories. Simple solution: Go — not to the troubled Delta or even Northwest Arkansas, where giant high schools in Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville produce surprisingly small numbers of National Merit scholars — but to Pulaski County, with its proven population of brainy students. Throw in Walton Foundation and UA millions. Add parents happy to get a free education for their bright kids amid a relatively homogenous student body. It’s a can’t-lose situation. Except for other public schools.

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