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Charter school wisdom

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The state Board of Education last week demonstrated a more searching approach to charter school applications than it has sometimes shown.

Faced with eight charter school applications, the Board approved only the KIPP Academy's expansion of its charter to Blytheville. KIPP's proven success at reaching disadvantaged students in Helena made it an obvious choice.

Among others, the board rejected transparent efforts to avoid school consolidation plus an Oklahoma charter school operator's effort to expand into Springdale. The Springdale School District argued persuasively that the charter school would provide nothing the district wasn't already providing.

The legislative history is clear. Charter schools are supposed to provide opportunities for students being failed by existing conventional school districts or to provide programs not otherwise available. They also must demonstrate the tools to succeed.

Some schools approved in Pulaski County demonstrated little more than a desire to create a place for students who prefer not to attend any of the three majority-black, majority-poor conventional local school districts. Several of the schools are now majority-white and majority-middle-class, with little in the way of unique programs. Where they've taken students from public schools, they've overwhelmingly been students already making good academic progress.

The Little Rock School District argues that the state should consider such resegregation when it reviews charter school applications. The state may seek a legal opinion on that, but it should consider more than a strict legal reading.

The Little Rock district wants the state to consider the county's special circumstances in charter reviews as a condition of ending state financial payments in the Pulaski desegregation case. Until now, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has refused to give any ground on charter schools.

But Chris Heller, Little Rock's attorney, recently made a reasonable suggestion. Little Rock could, for example, end its opposition to a pending charter proposal for a school for black males. But why can't the state impose some designated percentages for at-risk populations in the charter schools created in Pulaski County? The state also could commit to careful review of existing charter schools. Are they reaching students who need the most help?

The state has been in court for better than 50 years precisely because of official efforts to separate people by color and class. It makes no sense for the state to end that court case by demanding, in the name of charter schools, “separate but equal” all over again.

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