Columns » Max Brantley

Charter secret

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These are hard times for those who believe in traditional public schools, run by democratically elected representatives, open to all on equal terms.

The Little Rock School District seems likely to remain under state control permanently if its enemies on the state Board of Education prevail. If it survives at all. It seems more likely to be broken up piecemeal by the steady advancement of charter schools, propped up by Walton Family Foundation billions.

Last week, the public learned after the fact that the Waltons had purchased, with the aid of a day-old state law giving charters first claim on vacant public school facilities, a former Little Rock district school, Garland, for a $425,000 pittance. It wasn't revealed until Tuesday that it will become a charter school, to pull another 600 students from the surrounding Little Rock School District. In the regulatory process for rubber stamping, too, is yet another Walton-backed charter school in another former Little Rock school nearby.

Also this week, the eStem privately operated charter school system — with plans for 5,000 enrollment — opened a new high school on land and buildings provided by UA-Little Rock and, again, the Walton Family Foundation.

The occasion was heralded by John Bacon, the chief executive at eStem, in an op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He said eStem's proven methods are there for the replicating by the Little Rock School District.

Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation and competition. To date, they've shown little in that area that isn't already available in conventional schools. They have encouraged segregation. Through smart marketing, they've attracted better-situated students, thus concentrating the hard cases in what's left of the public school system.

Bacon revealed one eStem secret.

"It starts with eStem demographics, which are comparable to those in the city of Little Rock.

"Regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic status, eStem students attend school each day with a desire to learn. Representative demographics yield higher student achievement: in testing scores, in graduation rates and in college acceptance."

And what are demographics? Race and family income, to name two. In short, it seems like he's saying, poverty is destiny. Sure. All professionals agree that family income is the best predictor of academic success and that exposure of poor kids to middle-class kids is also a recipe for success for them.

But, there are only so many middle-class kids to go around. And the situation is complicated by the fact of disproportionate poverty among black families.

eStem may somewhat resemble the city of Little Rock in demographics, but not the Little Rock School District, which doesn't include the mostly white, mostly higher income western reaches of the city.

eStem's enrollment last year was 46 percent black. In the Little Rock School District, it was 64 percent. The school-age population in the LRSD is 36 percent white, about 50 percent in the city of Little Rock.

Income is even more telling. At eStem, 30.4 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch based on family income. In the Little Rock district, it was 70.8 percent. Some 36 percent of the black children in Little Rock live below the federal poverty line.

In short, there are only so many middle- class kids left to go around.

Who is likely to be able to figure out the charter school application process and find a way to get kids to a school that lacks a bus system and other elements of comprehensive public schools but also might lack an overabundance of poor kids? A higher income parent, for one. Also parents who have a stronger commitment to kids' success.

A little simple arithmetic with census data shows Bacon's formula might not be so easy to replicate as he boasts. He also should be careful talking about how eStem kids come to school prepared to learn, as if others do not. It's the kind of arrogance so often exhibited by the Walton Foundation, which is starting a new charter school on Battery Street within a half-mile of high achieving Little Rock classrooms on the insulting premise that there are no good neighborhood options.

There are Little Rock schools that outscore eStem and there are some with high poverty populations that defy the odds. One was Wilson Elementary, closed along with other schools because of the declining district enrollment caused by the drain of students to charter schools and other places. A final capping irony would be for the Waltons to acquire it, too. For yet another charter school. Perhaps with Bacon's "representative demographics."

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