Columns » Max Brantley

Money talks

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If pending applications are approved, the state will be one shy of the legislative cap on 24 charter schools next year. But you can expect a Walton-paid lobbyist to be working the legislative hallways to lift that cap.

More than half the schools, if all are approved, will be in Pulaski County. This is not cause for concern, insists Scott Smith, who directs the so-called Arkansas Public School Resource Center. Easy for him to say. He is paid by the Walton millions to get more charter schools created.

The Walton charter school initiative isn't only after the easy money of big enrollment in Pulaski. They want to cripple the school districts because they harbor teacher unions and opposition to simplistic merit pay schemes. If good educators, good schools and good students are collateral damage, what do they care?

The Waltons initially pushed school vouchers, but have found charters a more palatable substitute. They are nominally public schools, though many are quasi-private free academies for niche populations. When they skim cream from difficult urban districts, they tend to “succeed.”

Study after study shows, however, that charter schools, as a whole, do no better than public schools. There's still merit, it seems, in centralized school oversight.

New Yorkers were surprised to learn last week that a highly touted public school there — where 80 percent of students passed the standardized math test — would get an F on a school report card because students who started the year with good math and English scores didn't progress sufficiently. In short, when white students from middle-class, educated families (which this New York public school was crammed with) achieve “proficiency,” it's not exactly news. Deeper evaluations are required.

In Little Rock, the Waltons and Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman are investing millions in the new e-Stem charter school in Little Rock. It will certainly “succeed.” It has fewer poor and minority students than the all-comers Little Rock public schools. A majority of its students already score “proficient” on standardized tests. Its motivated parents have had to surmount an enrollment lottery and lack of transportation. Roy Brooks will really have to screw up for these children of engaged parents to “fail.” So it will be interesting to see how e-Stem measures student progress. Nature or nurture?

Meanwhile, e-Stem has taken hundreds of good students — black and white — from Little Rock schools, along with millions in public money. (These kids weren't failing, by the way, if your God is the standardized test.) The losses will be felt keenly, maybe the kids more than the money.

Charter school advocates note that some new proposals target underachieving students, particularly minority males. Good. These efforts still aren't likely to produce a fair comparison with schools that must accept whatever children wander in. Schools with strict dress codes, longer days, longer years and required parent-teacher meetings guarantee parental involvement that most public schools can only dream of.

Civil rights lawyer John Walker observed last week that interest in charter schools seems to correlate with the size of the minority population. Indeed. This reflects both the national tragedy of the racial education gap and the natural desire of parents for their children to be educated among people more like them (not just in skin color).

When the Waltons have finished with Little Rock, there will be winners. But the national record of charters, the likely crippling of large school districts and the difficulty of enforcing accountability in a balkanized education system, suggests many losers, too. The Waltons will still be rich.

 

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