Instead of ‘Pause Button’ on Charters, LRSD Should Step on Gas

In the Sunday, February 14, 2016 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Greg Adams, the former two-term president of the Little Rock School Board, and Sam Ledbetter, former chairman of the State Board of Education, teamed to urge Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key and the State Board of Education to “hit the pause button” on charter school expansion in the LRSD.

Unfortunately, “hitting the pause button” – repeatedly – is exactly why the district finds itself with an increasing percentage of Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) students, declining Black and White enrollment, over half of its schools 70% or more one race, and six schools 90% or more one race.

During Mr. Adams’ five-and-a-half years on the board, the district implemented one action – initiated by the former superintendent – to retain, return and/or recruit non-FRL students to the district: conversion of what would have been a seventh Academic Distress school to Forest Height STEM Academy.

In less than a year on the job, the 23rd superintendent in 34 years is implementing two – converting an existing warehouse to a “new” west Little Rock Middle School for 2016 and redirecting its 50% savings to construction of a new Southwest Little Rock High School.

The superintendent’s actions, however welcome, are too little too late. The west Little Rock Middle School will be at capacity the day it opens with no plans for what next year’s sixth graders will do for high school in 2019 when, by the way, will be the earliest the new Southwest Little Rock High School will open. And that’s if both projects aren’t derailed by the federal lawsuit filed by Mr. Adams’ former school board colleagues and their State Representative attorney. With 27 of 30 LRSD elementary schools within one mile of another, consolidating, converting and closings are not only inevitable, but required to deliver excellence and equity to all communities of the district.

The authors believe proposed expansion of eStem Public Charter Schools and LISA Academy, to be considered later this week by the ADE’s Charter Authorizing Panel, will “have significant negative impacts on the LRSD’s reform efforts.” They center their argument against the proposed expansions on the charters’ alleged impact on the district’s demographics. While the authors narrowly compare the district’s demographics to those of the two charters they oppose, the district’s demographics aren’t that dissimilar to comparable districts around the state.

  • 56 school districts, charters, of 254 statewide, have a higher percentage of Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) students than does LRSD (75%). The State’s average is 61%.
  • 134 school districts, charters, of 254 statewide, have a higher percentage of Special Education students than does LRSD (11%). The State’s average is also 11%.
  • 19 school districts statewide have a higher percentage of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) than does LRSD (11%). The State’s average is 8%. Springdale, the State’s second largest and highest paying district, is 45%.

We get it. When six of nine charters in the LRSD footprint serve more challenged demographics than does the district, they’re fine with that. But when two charter schools, simply by open-enrollment, are closer to the actual demographics of the City they serve than the failed demographics of the district, they cry foul and lay blame.

Messrs. Adams and Ledbetter claim to “know these charter schools have taken achieving students out of the LRSD.” Charters do not take students from school districts, as students do not belong to districts or charters. Parents of students choose where to send their students to school. Because of State-imposed enrollment caps and blind open-enrollment, charters have no control as to who attends their schools.

The authors also reverted to the anachronistic equating of students to State dollars, even though the $330 million district gets 100% of local property tax revenue dedicated to schools whether it has one student or 100,000. When the district educates a lower percentage of its school-age population than any district in Arkansas, that’s a windfall and disincentive to grow the district and educate more students.

While they lament the loss of $37 million in annual State desegregation funding in 2019, they fail to note that the district watched over $1 billion of the State’s money and eight of twelve capital mills disappear into operations, instead of being invested in excellence and infrastructure to grow and diversify the district.

The authors also proclaim: “Great communities have great schools.” We agree. Our difference? We believe great schools may be both traditional and charter (and private). Where would Little Rock be as a community, but for its portfolio of education options.

LRSD has had 147 years. Lisa Academy has had twelve and eStem eight. Residents of the LRSD demand, deserve growth. While the district can’t or won’t respond, charters must.

An either/or approach to public education, accompanied by a default opposition to all things open-enrollment charter is a vestige of previous LRSD boards and administrations. While Messrs. Adams and Ledbetter claim to recognize “value in letting families decide which schools their children should attend,” they qualify it by writing, “There is also value in fairness.”

Once again, we agree. If LRSD’s $15,514 per student spend can’t and/or won’t compete with eStem’s $8,315 and/or Lisa Academy’s $7,850, the district needs to hit the “accelerator” on itself instead of “the pause button” on charters. 54% and 51% of LRSD’s per pupil funding is not fair, but you will never find any charter fighting any district’s expansion.

The bottom line: LISA Academy and eStem are responding to demand of their thousands of current and wait listed students and families. For decades, the district has had innumerable opportunities to do the same, but ignored them.

In 1982, the Little Rock School District blamed other public schools for its issues as it sued the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School Districts to consolidate into one county-wide district. $1.56 billion and 34 years later, LRSD is more segregated today than when it filed the lawsuit. And yet, rather than introspection and hard correction, it continues its pattern of blaming neighboring public schools for its past, present and prospective failures. North Little Rock and the County weren’t to blame then, and eStem and LISA aren’t to blame now.

When members and leaders of their respective boards, President Adams and Chairman Ledbetter had their opportunities to affect systemic change in the district. Now that they’re private citizens, continuing to oppose some public schools under the guise of supporting others is simply a perpetuation of the status quo.

May the Charter Authorizing Panel and State Board of Education be guided by the best interests of real, present-day students and families instead of the tired defense of a district perpetually wanting the world to stand still until it gets its act together.

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