Columns » Max Brantley

Charter 'choice': creationism

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One of the maddening aspects of the push to destroy conventional school districts with charter schools is the underlying theme that all conventional public schools are failing and if you slap the word "charter" on a school it must be good.

One of the Walton-financed professors up at the University of Arkansas's charter school marketing department even wrote the other day that it was fair to judge public schools by standardized test scores, but not what he calls "choice" schools.

I guess not. Because on study after study, charter schools don't outperform.

A national study by a Stanford University-based group found that one charter school management company, Responsive Education Solutions of Lewisville, Texas, did a particularly poor job with at-risk students.

Responsive Ed operates Premier High School in Little Rock, Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy in Bentonville and Quest middle school in Pine Bluff. It just won approval for a Quest middle and high school in Chenal Valley, where it will skim upper income, predominantly white families anxious to avoid Little Rock public schools. It also has won state Education Department approval to consult and provide curriculum for three school districts converting conventional schools to charters — in Pea Ridge, Fountain Lake and West Memphis, where the whole high school will be shaped by Responsive Ed.

Responsive Ed's growth in Arkansas came just as Slate was about to publish explosive reporting by Zack Kopplin, a young political activist.

Kopplin detailed the influence of creationism (religion) in the science courses taught in Responsive Ed's Texas schools. Though the schools run on public money and have a secular "veneer," the organization has many ties to the creationist movement and figures who have pushed for more religion in public life, the article reported. Kopplin also quoted dubious material in history courses, from roots of war to jabs at feminism and John Kerry's war record.

Neither Responsive Ed nor Gary Newton, the Walton-financed Arkansas charter school lobbyist who's led the Quest school establishment in Chenal Valley, wanted to talk about the Slate article with me. But Chuck Cook, CEO of Responsive Ed, did post a prepared statement on the Arkansas Blog.

He said Responsive Ed complies with the law in Texas on science teaching and, as for historical challenges, said the school complies with all regulations. He addressed no specific citations of error.

His response was telling about his beliefs:

"In recent years, these two schools of thought — creationism and evolution — have been at conflict in schools, universities, and scientific circles," he wrote. "Some scientists and educators have attempted to bridge them through ideas such as intelligent design and theistic evolution. However, none of these theories is accepted by every scientist, natural philosopher, or educator. In this Unit, you will be able to review the evidence for the theory of evolution and decide on your own position. You will want to analyze and evaluate the evidence and every statement made in the discussion."

Cook accused Kopplin of guilt by association. He portrayed himself as being persecuted because he's " a professed Christian, attend church each week, have a degree in religion, have worked at a Christian rescue mission, and have worked at Accelerated Christian Education."

Religious dog whistle aside, I'd already decided, based on its jargon-filled application, that Responsive Ed offered little more for West Little Rock than, as state Board of Education member Sam Ledbetter observed, its existence. It will be a haven for a certain type of student from another type of student.

I'd be inclined to take my chances at one of those "failing" Little Rock schools, such as Central High, which produced the state's only Intel Science Talent Search semi-finalist this year. I know they teach science.

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