Columns » Max Brantley

Separate and unequal

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Faced with a solid recommendation by a panel of state employees to revoke the charter of Covenant Keepers charter school in Southwest Little Rock, the state Board of Education voted again last week to forgive the school's poor academic and financial record.

Again, the state Board of Education accepted excuses it won't tolerate from the Little Rock School District.

The board took over the Little Rock School District two years ago and won't let go, though 45 of its 48 schools exceed the performance of Covenant Keepers and the others are easily in its league academically.

Covenant Keepers, 9 years old this August, has NEVER met proficiency standards. The grade 6-8 school showed about 28 percent of its students meeting the standard in reading and 20 percent in math in the most recent tests. It's also been in a persistent financial mess.

The school had a huge negative fund balance, in part because it was in arrears to the state for taking money in excess of its 160-student enrollment. (You wouldn't think counting to 160 is high-order math.) Proper tax forms weren't in evidence for employees and contractors. It failed to provide requested documentation for credit card charges, including out-of-state trips. Its director, Valerie Tatum, is paid a whopping $135,000, or better than $800 per student to run a 160-student school. No comparable school leader in Arkansas comes close.

What's the rub? Covenant Keepers has powerful friends. The Walton Family Foundation provided cash infusion to fix its red-ink-bathed books. The money was passed through an opaque, unaccountable charter management corporation. Jess Askew, a tall-tower Little Rock lawyer who lawyers for Walton-supported school "choice" initiatives, pled the case for Covenant Keepers. The head of the Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas — a charter school-promoting operation that owes its existence and pay subsidies to the Waltons — testified that Covenant Keepers was, well, doing a bit better and used the Little Rock School District as a whipping boy. She said Covenant Keepers in the most recent year of testing did as well as some nearby Little Rock district schools. Valerie Tatum said she's getting valuable support from the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, another charter school advocate underwritten by, yes, the Walton Family Foundation.

The excuse-making for Covenant Keepers on the state board was abundant. Diane Zook, who came prepared with a scripted Little Rock School District diatribe the last time someone asked for a little similar flexibility for Little Rock schools with similar poor and minority student bodies, said the charter school was headed in the "right direction." Brett Williamson, who famously declared angrily that he was "sick" of hearing about Little Rock, said it was unremarkable that the school might have screwed up tax forms. He, by the way, works in finance for the Murphy oil fortune (a source of charter school support over the years). Fitz Hill dismissed the shoddy credit card record-keeping and compared it favorably with his own. (This from a guy under whose tenure Arkansas Baptist College nearly collapsed, and still founders, from financial ills.) Charisse Dean, employed by a home-school-backing religious organization, almost seemed to be reading from prepared Covenant Keeper talking points. Susan Chambers, a Walmart employee, suggested that the tough report on financial records somehow boiled down to a personality clash with department officials.

The fix was in. Board member Jay Barth (a Hendrix College professor and columnist for this paper), who noted the school's repeated failure to deliver academically, threw in with the vote for maintaining the charter in return for a review of the school's performance on the next round of testing.

The Walton family's propaganda unit at the UA put the cherry on this hot mess sundae with a blog post declaring "... parents are CHOOSING to send their students to Covenant Keepers. And here at the OEP, we think that allowing parents to have a choice is good for kids and families, even if the school's test scores are just the same."

This is the new mantra of the Billionaire Boys Club school "choice" campaign. Choice is good, no matter how bad the school. The new theme is required because studies of charter and voucher schools have demonstrated little edge, sometime even damage, for alternatives to real public schools.

Covenant Keepers, in the best possible light, MIGHT be on a par with the worst Little Rock schools. Covenant Keepers remains in business. The Little Rock School District remains in state control.

Billionaires have the resources to play the long game. Their man is now governor and his appointees control the state Board of Education. That's bad news for Little Rock schools. Charter schools? They never have to say they're sorry. Even if they are.

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