I was extremely cautious before engaging in the educational debate about the State Board of Education's decision to take over the Little Rock School District. I did not want to be just another black voice saying no to the powers that be. Then, a lightbulb turned on: I'm a lawyer, so I should just go read the law. I read the law, talked to parents, talked to students, talked to teachers, talked with lobbyists who support charter expansion, talked with those opposed to the proliferation of charters schools, and met with policymakers about this important issue in educational history in Arkansas. Coupled with my life experiences and being a graduate of Little Rock McClellan High School, I have developed my own perspective and approach to the educational landscape in Little Rock.
In April 2016, the State Board of Education approved the creation of the Little Rock Area Public Education Stakeholder Group. Along with six others, I was appointed to serve on the group. After a year of research, meetings and presentations, the stakeholder group gave its final report. In connection, I authored a concurring opinion to highlight some additional recommendations to the state board to assist with the creation of a strategic plan. It focused primarily on the policy issues surrounding charter authorization.
My first recommendation was that the Arkansas Department of Education must ensure collaboration between traditional public schools and public charter schools. However, before the department can facilitate any semblance of collaboration there must be equity and enforcement. For example, department rules say that a local school board may review the application of a proposed open-enrollment public charter within the district's footprint. A local school board would not have the final say on whether the charter school was approved, but the rule was presumably created to provide some much needed context and consideration from local representation on the need or impact of an additional charter school. With regard to LRSD, because there is no school board, there is no one to fulfill this check and balance.
Despite the department regulation permitting it, neither the state charter-authorizing panel nor the State Board of Education hears from a local school board regarding the potential effects of a new charter on a local school district. The only analysis of the potential impact concerns whether the charter school will negatively affect desegregation efforts. This is a noteworthy analysis, but it's also important to consider whether a charter school will negatively affect the social and financial viability of the local school district or any specific school within the local school district.
This is a critical concern because on Sept. 14, the state board will decide whether to approve an additional three charter schools in the LRSD footprint. As stated in the stakeholder group's report, there is a tipping point where the growth of charter schools negatively affects traditional schools. We do not know the financial tipping point, but the societal tipping point has already been reached. Aside from the protests, rallies, town halls, op-eds, lawsuits and social media posts, the social tipping point is affecting families in other ways.
Take a moment to consider the child and the family that continues to attend school in the LRSD and how they must feel to hear their school repeatedly belittled. Consider how a child and family must feel to know that we are talking about them when we discuss "poor test scores," perceived "discipline issues," and low socioeconomic status. Think about the message we send to those students and families if we continue to choose not to attend school with them. This hits home with me, because as a child I fit that description. I was a member of one of those families. This hits home with me, because it is my belief that some parents would welcome the opportunity to send their children to school with my future children, but would have hesitated to send their children to school with me when I was a child. This hits home with me because I am not who I am today without my educational experiences in the LRSD.
Some reading this will attempt to label me as anti-charter. There was a place for charter schools, but it was not to replace traditional schools. I'm not anti-charter; just pro-LRSD. Unless the plan is to create over 20,000-plus charter school seats, there will always be students in the LRSD. As long as there are students in the LRSD, our community, our city leaders, and the Department of Education need to be deliberate and thorough in determining how decisions impact the educational environment of students in the LRSD. The Department of Education and state board must evaluate how the continued growth of charter seats impacts the social, fiscal and educational viability of the LRSD.
Antwan Phillips is an attorney at Wright Lindsey Jennings.