**UPDATE, 11:37: The state Board has approved the eStem charter school expansion by a vote of 5-2. Members Mireya Reith and Jay Barth voted no. Susan Chambers, Brett Williamson, Charisse Dean, Diane Zook and Toyce Newton voted yes. Vicki Saviers recused, since she is a former member of the eStem board. Joe Black was not present.

**UPDATE, 9:36: The state Board approved the LISA Academy charter school expansion by a vote of 5-3. Members Mireya Reith, Vicki Saviers and Jay Barth voted no. Susan Chambers, Brett Williamson, Charisse Dean, Diane Zook and Toyce Newton voted yes; Joe Black was not present. 


It’s a packed house at the Education Department building this evening as the state Board of Education prepares to make a final decision on authorizing the expansion of two charter school operators in Little Rock, eStem and LISA Academy. (Renewal of a third Little Rock charter operator, Covenant Keepers, is also on the agenda; Covenant Keepers is not seeking to expand, but it has struggled academically.)

The proposed expansions of eStem and LISA comprise perhaps the most significant turning point for public education in Little Rock since the January 2015 state takeover of the Little Rock School District in this same room. The two charters propose to double their current combined enrollment in the coming years, with eStem declaring its intentions to expand further beyond that. The charters say expansion is necessary to meet latent parent demand, pointing to large waiting lists. Advocates of Little Rock’s traditional public schools argue that the expansions will further concentrate disadvantaged students in the LRSD at a time when the district is struggling to correct both academic and fiscal challenges. Compared to the LRSD, EStem and LISA contain lower percentages of kids who live in poverty, African American and Hispanic students, English-language learners and special education students — all of which give the charters a strong demographic edge, statistically speaking, and makes the LRSD’s climb that much steeper.


I’ll update this post as the evening goes on.

5:30 — The meeting began with testimony from Lt. Gov Tim Griffin and a number of Republican legislators, all of whom were uniformly in the pro-charter, pro-school choice camp. The arguments relied on a familiar, if highly dubious, assumption: That charters provide an inherently better education than traditional public schools.


The most fundamental argument against the charter expansions is that, by drawing a disproportionately higher income cohort of students away from the traditional public schools, they’ll leave students in those traditional schools in a worse situation, since a school’s performance tracks largely with its concentration of poverty. A district with higher poverty percentages is a district with compounding problems — and those problems are inherited by its students. Griffin, who has been lobbying hard for approval of the charter proposals, took issue with that argument.

“I’ve heard a lot about the collective … the ‘greater good,'” he said. He called that line of thinking “ludicrous … a collective, odd way of thinking.” Standing in the way of charter school expansions, he said, equated to telling parents to be satisfied with mediocre choices. “The people that were here for choice, when we look back in ten years, will have been on the right side of history,” he declared.

Rep. Douglas House (R-North Little Rock) said that the attitude of public schools is to say, “Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Give us more time. Give us more money.” Parents should be allowed to make decisions for their children, he said. “The customer is always right. The taxpayer is always right. … Every parent wants the very best for their child.”

“Education has moved on,” from the old debates, House said. He extolled the innovation that takes place in charter schools. “Kids are learning to do hysterectomies with robots. I saw that with my own eyes!” he said


Among the other Republicans speaking in favor of charters were Sen. Cecile Bledsoe and Rep. Grant Hodges, both of Rogers, and Rep. Mark Lowery of Maumelle and Rep. Donnie Copeland of North Little Rock. City Director Lance Hines also urged acceptance of the charter proposals.

6:52 — The board unanimously approved a three-year extension of Covenant Keepers’ charter, as recommended by the Education Department’s charter authorizing panel. Board member Jay Barth made the motion to accept, although he was careful to explain that he planned to later push for the board to pursue further intervention in the charter school due to its academic distress status.

Although the issue of Covenant Keepers is overshadowed tonight by the eStem/LISA question — which has much greater ramifications for the LRSD writ large — it’s worthy of its own discussion at a later date. Covenant Keepers, a small charter school in Southwest Little Rock, is composed almost entirely of black and Hispanic students. It is 90 percent low-income. In short, its challenge is similar to the one faced by a number of struggling schools within the LRSD. And, like many of those campuses, it is classified as a “priority” school by its low student achievement; it is also in “academic distress,” meaning fewer than half of its students score “proficient” or higher on standardized tests. It’s that same designation at six campuses in the LRSD that led to the state takeover of the district.

7:15 — LISA Academy
is presenting its proposal to the board. Luanne Baroni, who has worked at LISA for 11 years and is now principal, ran through a review of the school’s merits. “We think the demand is evident for what we’re asking for. We’re asking for an elementary school to complete our K-12 system,” she said.

She also pushed back against the idea that charters like LISA cater primarily to white students. “LISA Academy has been nationally recognized as the most diverse school in the state by Public School Review,” she said. “We’re a blind lottery, so we can’t pick our students,” but we can do targeted recruitment. The school has done that, she said, and “it has had an ongoing impact on our student population.” (You can see LISA’s 2014 demographics here. It is indeed quite diverse: about 43 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, and 26 percent white. The outlier for LISA is its unusually high Asian population — 18 percent. However, income is a better predictor of academic achievement than ethnicity, and LISA’s free-and-reduced lunch population is 37 percent; in 2014, LRSD’s was 63 percent but it has risen significantly since then.)

A representative from the Mexican Consulate in Little Rock spoke in favor of LISA. “We want to thank all the work that LISA academy has done for the benefit of the community, and benefits it has brought for the Hispanic community in particular,” he said.

7:32 — Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) asks the board to wait on approving the charter applications until it comes up with a broader plan for public education in Little Rock. In the last few weeks since the board voted to review the charter authorizing panel’s decision, he said, “it’s impossible for you to obtain the amount of information you need to make an informed decision about this issue. You need quantitative analysis. You need discussion between the stakeholders.”

“I’m not here to speak against LISA Academy and eStem. I know Luanne Baroni and [eStem CEO] John Bacon are good, smart people with their hearts in the right place. They do good work.” But, he said, “the merits of those schools is not the whole question for this body.” The state board’s responsibility is to shape “the direction of public education in Little Rock — and make no mistake, the decision you make will affect the 35,000 students in public education in Little Rock,” in both traditional schools and charters.

“You have to know the impact before you made a decision of this magnitude,” Tucker said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that because you hold the future of public education in Little Rock in your hands, you hold the future of the city as a whole.” Come up with a comprehensive plan for both charter and traditional schools, Tucker urged. “While it would be unprecedented in education, we see it in state government all the time,” referring to comprehensive planning, “especially under Gov. Hutchinson’s leadership.” Just look at the Medicaid expansion, Tucker said, in which the legislature hired a consultant to perform a top-to-bottom analysis of health care in the state before coming up with a comprehensive plan. “I’m just asking for a similar process for this decision.”


8:00 — Rep. Charles Blake
(D-Little Rock) said, “in no way am I anti charter. I believe in the mission of public education period, and I think there is a place for everybody … but we have to have some kind of long term planning.” He also pointed out that of all the Republican legislators who testified earlier, “not one of them represent families in Little Rock.”

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) also urged the board to come up with a long-term plan. Referencing frequently cited statistics about American students’ performance as compared with those of European and Asian nations, she said, education policymakers in those countries “decided to sit down and have a coherent 20 to 30 year plan. And not one bit of that plan calls for pulling the schools apart and picking here and picking there. The way they did it was by following the research and the expertise right here in the United States. … Every single one starts with a long range plan — not for some, but for all kids.”

As for the waiting lists for charters, Elliott said, “in January 2015, this board really created a waiting list” by taking over the LRSD and making itself responsible for decision making in the district. “83,000 people in my senate district ask me what we’re going to do, and I cannot respond,” she said. “Many people have lost hope or belief that it doesn’t even matter if I’m here … they believe that minds are already made up, because they look at the order of events and come to that conclusion.”

Elliott also pointed out that many of the Republican legislators urging charter expansion are from outside of central Arkansas. Turning to Susan Chambers, a board member from Northwest Arkansas, Elliott said, “it is unprecedented that you would find me, Ms. Chambers, in your district telling you what you should do about your schools. That’s unprecedented as legislators that we would do that. … I don’t want to cut off anybody’s First Amendment right … but I want you to recognize that this is not something that is traditionally done.”

8:15 —
LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus spoke against the LISA expansion. He pulled out a newspaper from January 14, 2004, the date that LISA was granted its charter by the state board. Reading from an article, Kurrus said LISA was originally envisioned as serving 200-400 students, mostly black and mostly low-income. “That’s where we started … Now we’re talking about a unified K-12 system.”

Kurrus is pulling no punches in his critique of the charters. “EStem and LISA do not enroll poor children, by and large … in any kind of percentage that’s relative to Little Rock,” he said. He pulled up data that shows the students the two charters tend to draw from the LRSD are mostly high performing: 81.9 percent of the kids who left LRSD to go to eStem and LISA were proficiant or advanced in literacy, and 77.2 percent of those kids were proficient or advanced in math. The superintendent called “nonsense” the idea that the charters primary role is to help students “escape out of violent environments” at troubled traditional schools.

“If we’re going to have three large school districts in LR, they need to operate in a coordinated fashion,” he said. If the charter expansions are approved, Kurrus said he will continue to do his job. “But I will tell you this: I don’t see a bright future for the LRSD if it continues to increase as far as its level of poverty because … students are moving into other environments. “

9:36 —
The state Board approved the LISA Academy charter school expansion by a vote of 5-3. Members Mireya Reith, Vicki Saviers and Jay Barth voted no. Susan Chambers, Brett Williamson, Charisse Dean, Diane Zook and Toyce Newton voted yes; Joe Black was not present.

The expansion will add around 600 students to LISA (bringing the school’s seats from 1,500 to 2,100) and open a new elementary campus in West Little Rock, near the Walmart on Chenal Parkway and Bowman Road.

After extended testimony from both sides, the board moved to discussion. Multiple members said they were sympathetic to the calls for a plan, although some ended up on different sides of the issue. 

Vicki Saviers complained of “dissonance” regarding the data she’s received. “The information that I’ve been hearing from the two sides just doesn’t add up,” she said. “The constant refrain from folks that it’s our job to create a plan. My question for [Education Commissioner Johnny] Key is, ‘it our job?’ Is it our job to create a plan for the Little Rock School District, or Pulaski County at large, and is this something you’ve broached with Mr. Kurrus and the charter school organizers?”

Key didn’t directly answer the question. “I think this board has already recognized that it has a responsibility to central Arkansas as a whole,” he said, but said action on creating a plan for an eventual unified district south of the Arkansas River was delayed indefinitely until the Pulaski County Special School District is released from federal court supervision. “It could be a year, it could be five years,” he said. He cited other cities around the nation in which efforts have been made to bridge the gap between charters and traditional schools. But in the end, he cautioned the board against delay of a decision. Other open enrollment charters have already filed letters of intent for the upcoming year, he said.

Susan Chambers said that she was “compelled by the arguments on both sides of this,” but that she was convinced charter approval was “not a zero sum game” for the LRSD — despite the strenuous arguments made by the state-appointed superintendent to the contrary. “We need a plan, but I don’t think we should let the planning process … prevent us from moving forward short term with things the community is saying they need and want.”

Diane Zook made a motion to approve the LISA Academy proposal. She believes Baker Kurrus’ concerns about the charter expansions were overwrought. “I think … Mr. Kurrus’ concerns are not that unusual for a first year superintendent … There are districts all over this state that have higher free-and-reduced lunch percentages, that have higher special education percentages … and they have figured out how to educate kids every day.”

Jay Barth then attempted to forward an alternative motion to “pause” the decision and begin working on a comprehensive plan with a “clearly defined timeline.” However, Zook’s motion was voted on by the board first, and it passed handily. Barth agreed later to add discussion of such a plan to the board’s April agenda.

The state board has begun hearing discussion over eStem’s proposed expansion. CEO John Bacon is testifying.

“We’re a small school and a young school, but we feel good about how far we’ve come in that time,” he said. “Our racial balance is very much in line with the city of Little Rock. … It very closely mirrors the community that we serve.” eStem currently is 45 percent African American, 43 white, 6 Hispanic and about 6 percent Asian or other races.

Bacon’s again referenced eStem’s large waiting list, which he said is now just over 6,100 students. Addressing the concerns raised by charter opponents that the school may be inflating its waitlist numbers by not purging it of families who may no longer be interested, Bacon said, “the large majority of the students have been on this list for just the past three or four years.” Since eStem announced its expansion plans last summer, he said, the school has received “1800 applicants just from last August to March of this year.” The ZIP codes with the largest number of applicants, he said are 72204 and 72209, which are both south of I-630. 

10:30 — LRSD Superintendent Kurrus returned to the podium to argue against the eStem expansion. “eStem is a lovely school he said,” but “as lovely as it looks … the heavy lifting goes on in Southwest Little Rock.” Look at Covenant Keepers, he said — an open enrollment charter school in Southwest LR that’s academically struggling. Kurrus said the argument that eStem reflects the demographics of Little Rock is beside the point. “It doesn’t matter what the racial composition of our community is as a whole … our percentages [in the LRSD] will be compared with eStem and LISA’s.”

As for collaboration, said Kurrus, the Little Rock School District doesn’t need help teaching kids who are already achieving. “Where we need help is in Southwest [Little Rock]. Kids in poverty. Kids who don’t speak English. High needs kids. … Every time they build their enrollment, they will drive up our percentage of poor students, they will drive up our percentage of kids with special needs.”

Given the vote on LISA, though, it’s all but certain the eStem proposal will be approved by the board, and the superintendent knows it. “I hear a train coming. … and I don’t think I’m going to get the votes I need to slow this train down,” he said.

10:54 —
Let the record show that the charter school supporters in attendance at this meeting undoubtedly have the edge in enthusiasm and numbers, at least this late into the night.

Let the record also show that, yes, while little children speaking at a podium is very cute, fifth graders who’ve been prompted to make a statement in support of their school is maybe not what policy choices should be made on. And that there are quite a few cute little children in LRSD schools, too.

11: 30 — Public comment has ended on the eStem expansion. Jay Barth asks eStem CEo John Bacon about a question that LRSD Superintendent Kurrus raised — why is the charter operator choosing the location on Shall Street in east Little Rock (near the Clinton Library) for its new elementary and middle schools, considering LRSD already has a number of elementary schools in that area with excess capacity?

(Or, as Kurrus put it earlier, “why spend “a couple million bucks to build another school where there’s a declining population where there are literally thousands of unfilled seats in [LRSD elementary schools]? … Why don’t you put it in Southwest where you can reach out and touch the kids of great need?” Bacon later told the board that eStem would be very pleased to discuss opening a school in Southwest Little Rock, to loud cheers from eStem supporters in the lobby of the ADE building.)

Bacon said that eStem is committed to staying in downtown Little Rock, and it’s been a major part of the revitalization of downtown. As for the impact on LRSD, he said, “to be totally honest, we didn’t think about Little Rock School District when we made this plan … we were looking at the needs and desires of families [who were applying to the school].”

“That seems like exactly the problem,” Barth said. “It seems like it should have been part of a comprehensive plan.” 

“We want to be part of a comprehensive plan,” Bacon replied, “but these families cannot wait.”

11:37 — The state Board has approved the eStem charter school expansion by a vote of 5-2. Members Mireya Reith and Jay Barth voted no. Susan Chambers, Brett Williamson, Charisse Dean, Diane Zook and Toyce Newton voted yes. Vicki Saviers recused, since she is a former member of the eStem board. Joe Black was not present. 

I’m going home.