Columns » Max Brantley

Charter watch

Charter schools should do what they promise and be evaluated rigorously. That's progress.

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Charter watch


The state Board of Education decided last week, at the urging of new state Education Director Tom Kimbrell, to back off restrictions on a new charter school.

The Little Rock Urban Collegiate Public Charter School for Young men hopes to serve mostly poor and low-achieving students in grades seven and eight. The Board had mandated that 80 percent of the school's students meet those criteria. This arose at least in part from the Little Rock School District's long complaint that charter schools that claimed to aim for underachieving and minority students had turned into publicly financed quasi-private schools with white majorities of middle class kids who were already scoring well at previous schools.

I feared the retreat on the UCPC charter rules signaled a capitulation generally to the wealthy forces that hope for charter schools to proliferate like weeds, particularly in Little Rock. Their theory: If you want a charter, you can have a charter.

I had no doubt that the UCPC school would mostly serve the intended audience, mandate or no mandate. The likelihood is small that a wealthy white Heights mama is going to truck her baby out to a former auto dealership on University for a school whose target is underachieving poor (read mostly black) kids.
Happily, I think I misread the board vote. Kimbrell convinced me that the mandated enrollment presented practical problems. I also was encouraged by his comments on charter schools past and future.
With his leadership, the Education Department now will have an annual review of charter schools to see if they are doing what they promised. The charter school that vowed to serve a diverse population, but draws a mostly white student body from the white suburban community in which it sits? It will have to come up with a plan to meet its charter, even if that means moving the school. Otherwise, its charter will be revoked.

In response to my question, Kimbrell said he was well aware that the much lauded e-Stem charter — financed by money from millionaires who want to bust up the Little Rock School District — has a student body that is not so diverse as proponents had hoped and draws many students who were already scoring well at previous public schools.
As a former school superintendent, Kimbrell said he was sensitive to efforts to form charter schools merely to preserve a small community's school or to find an alternative to sending children to a conventional school with the wrong sorts of students.

Kimbrell also indicated his agreement with something I've long believed. Even the charter schools that seek poor and underachieving kids and demonstrate success in educating them (KIPP Academies, for example) enjoy an intangible benefit that many conventional public schools would die for — committed parents.

The Board of Education debate had a note of irony. Kimbrell told the board that schools populated solely by low-achieving poor students were more likely to become fixtures on the school improvement list and, thus, eventual state takeover targets. That, of course, is the reality faced by schools in impoverished neighborhoods all over Little Rock, Arkansas and the U.S. Kimbrell said he was not suggesting charter schools should be protected from those difficult demographic certainties that many conventional public schools can't avoid.

In short, Kimbrell told me, charters should do what they promise and be evaluated rigorously. That's progress. Until now, the same accountability hasn't been demanded of them.

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