When Magnets Aren’t, Fight the Charters

Last night (February 14th), the Little Rock School Board sent a Valentine to attorneys for the school district and Joshua Intervenors. In a 5 – 2 vote, the board followed the recommendation of its attorney to appeal U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr.’s ruling of last month rejecting the District’s claim that the State of Arkansas violated the 1989 desegregation agreement by authorizing the establishment of charter schools in Pulaski County.

Zone 3’s Leslie Fisken and Zone 5’s Jody Carreiro voted against the appeal. Zone 4’s Greg Adams, whose West Little Rock zone doesn’t have a middle or high school, much less a magnet, made the motion to appeal to the Eighth Circuit and was supported by Zone 1’s Norma Johnson, Zone 2’s Michael Nellums, Zone 6’s Tommy Branch Jr., and Zone 7’s Dianne Curry.

The attorney and board majority’s rationale is that charter schools contribute to the district’s desegregation because they attract students who might otherwise attend a district magnet.

Magnet schools got their name because they were designed to attract and keep students in the district. However, because of their 50/50 racial requirements, African-American students have been and continue to be disproportionately denied entry. Meanwhile, more and more of Little Rock’s schools have become magnets in name only.

Consider that three of Little Rock’s magnets (J.A. Fair High, McClellan High, and Cloverdale Middle) were recently named Needs Improvement Priority Schools by the Arkansas Department of Education. That places them among the lowest performing 37 out of 1,080 schools in Arkansas (bottom 3%).

Another three (Central High, Dunbar Middle, and M.L. King Elementary) were named Needs Improvement Focus Schools, among the lowest 157 in the state (bottom 15%).

Only two Little Rock School District magnet schools (Williams and Carver Elementary) and two Pulaski County Special School District magnets (Clinton and Chenal Elementary) were named an Achieving School, among the highest performing 346 in the state (top 32%).

By contrast, six Pulaski County open enrollment charters (Arkansas Virtual Academy, eStem Elementary, eStem High School, Lisa Academy North Elementary, Lisa Academy North Middle, and Jacksonville Lighthouse) were named Achieving or higher (top 32%). And of the twelve open enrollment charters in Pulaski County, none were among the bottom 15%.

Therefore, only four (20%) of the twenty magnet schools in Pulaski County could reasonably be termed “magnet” in performance. Six (30%) should be more accurately called – what’s the opposite of magnet – repellant.

By the same standards, six (50%) of the open enrollment charters are performing as magnets should, while none would be called repellant.

And here’s the kicker. Those six open enrollment charters are funded, on average, $5,000 less per student than Little Rock’s schools. And still, Little Rock continues to cry unfair competition.

In 1982, when the Little Rock School District sued the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School Districts to desegregate by consolidating, the racial gap between black and white in Little Rock was 40 points. In 2010, after $1.1 billion in desegregation spending, the gap was 47 points.

If the Little Rock School District truly wants to desegregate, it should remove its focus, energy and resources from federal court and dedicate itself to immediately building schools which will truly perform as magnets, retaining and attracting students through middle and high school.

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