The state Board of Education is meeting today on charter school applications. Some happenings:
* ACADEMICS PLUS IN MAUMELLE: The school got close questioning from Board member Sam Ledbetter on its failure to improve the numbers of poor and minority students. Robert McGill, who heads the school, said it “wanted” to be more diverse, but it had no specific performance standard because it had been advised it couldn’t use a weighted lottery to increase poor and minority students. Unsurprisingly, a free school in majority white middle class Maumelle, far removed from pockets of minority and poor kids, is sought primarily by people who reflect the neighborhood. Academics Plus is a good example of the failure of the promise that charter schools won’t be allowed to continue if they fail to meet their founding goals. A-Plus said 12 years ago it would target poor and minority students to close the achievement gap. It has not succeeded in enrolling significant numbers of those students and it hasn’t exceeded conventional public school performance with the students it has attracted.
Board chairman Brenda Gullett observed that charter schools always promise to “close the achievement gap,” but then they have no transportation, no free lunch program, outsource programs and have no control on the types of students who are admitted. “Then you have a hard time closing the achievement gtap,” she said. She said the state needed some way to make charter schools do what they promise to do.
Sam Jones, attorney for the Pulaski School District, reminded the board of A-Plus’ promise when it was established to be the “highest performing” collegiate prep school in America and to close the achievement gap in math and other areas. Compare 2012 and 2013 data, he said, and you’ll see “they have gone backwards in almost all areas.” He said the school has dropped in comparison to statewide averages in most areas of comparison on the ACT college admission test. Algebra, the school’s emphasized area, fell far behind the state average. “They are not carrying out their mission,” he said. He noted that the scores have dropped as middle class enrollment has increased. “They’re meeting hardly any of their academic goals.”
Board member Vicki Saviers, a committed charter school backer, said she was happy to hear the comparisons, but wondered if the same attention was given to the Pulaski County School District. Jones noted that the district serves a much different population (it takes all comers, and has a higher minority and poor population), but said nonetheless it tended to report narrower gaps in achievement than A-Plus. Ledbetter said the scores of Pulaski schools in Maumelle tend to match or better A-Plus performance. Board member Jay Barth noted that the gap widens in middle and high school grades. McGill said the school had had some “staffing issues” and student turnover also had affected performance, but he said he hoped staff changes and less turnover would improve results.
McGill complained about stones being thrown by public schools and said he could throw stones at them, too. Gullett pointed out the difference — “You tell us you’re going to do this …. and if you don’t we have to look at it.”
McGill said his school had less money than the Pulaski district and he objected to fingers being pointed. Gullett reminded him again that charter schools were established to find alternatives. When they don’t produce, it’s only fair to ask questions, she said.
The report on the school was accepted and it will continue to be authorized for continuation of its charter, as the board had decided a year ago. The discussion today was prompted by board members who wanted to hear an annual report about the school’s progress. (Correction: I earlier provided an inaccurate description of the review process.)
Bottom line: Charter school promises mean nothing. They’ll continue to be authorized forever if they meet a middling level of performance, even a little worse than the schools to which they’ve been formed as an alternative.
* ARKANSAS VIRTUAL ACADEMY: Gullett put former Sen. John Riggs on the spot for how the legislature bypassed wishes of the state Board and quadrupled the cap in enrollment in the Arkansas Virtual Academy, a process to funnel money to a private company that assists home schoolers, to 3,000. Riggs said the Board of the Academy, on which he serves, was not part of Sen. Johnny Key’s efforto get the enrollment cap increased by a “special language” rider approved in committee without floor discussion. Gullett said the virtual academy effectively had set itself apart from the board supervision that applies to other charger schools. Riggs disputed that. He also said any school could go to the legislature for special treatment.