The state Board of Education on Thursday afternoon allowed three charter school operators to proceed with plans to open new schools in Little Rock, disregarding pleas from Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore to institute a “pause” on charter growth in the city.
The three proposals were given preliminary approval in August by the Charter Authorizing Panel, but the state board has the power to review any of the authorizing panel’s decisions. The state board declined to do so for Einstein Charter School, ScholarMade Achievement Place and Friendship Aspire Academy in Little Rock, along with two other charters proposed for Pine Bluff. (Five was the maximum number of charters that could be approved under state law.) Had the state board opted to review any of the applications, another hearing would have been held next month on the merits of the proposals.
In a letter to the state board, Superintendent Poore requested that it review the Einstein, ScholarMade and Friendship applications (he’d also opposed all three in August, when the decision was before the authorizing panel). He reminded the state board of the report submitted last month by a stakeholder group which urged collaboration between the LRSD and charters and warned that unrestrained growth in charters could push the traditional schools toward “a tipping point that renders them unsustainable, first politically and then financially.” He noted that LRSD Board Zone 1, in which Einstein proposes to locate, has seen a steep drop in its population and questioned the need for another school there. (That’s one reason the old Garland school building — a former piece of LRSD property that Einstein intends to occupy — is vacant.)
Daniel Davis, the chief strategy officer for Einstein Charter Schools, asked the state board to let the authorizing panel’s decision stand. He said Einstein has an “almost decade-long record of results in New Orleans serving a population that’s 90-plus percent free and reduced lunch and 90-plus percent minority.” The charter network effectively serves half of New Orleans’ English-language learner students, he added.
Davis said Einstein would provide transportation to students; a criticism often lobbed at some charters is that they don’t have buses, thereby creating a barrier for low-income families to attend. “What we seek to do in Arkansas is to open a school in the Garland facility in Southwest Little Rock. … We believe there is a need for a high performing school in this area, and we look forward to doing that work.” (Note: I wouldn’t consider Garland to be in Southwest LR, but maybe some do.)
Poore questioned the assertion — made by all the charter hopefuls — that the need for high-performing schools in Little Rock is going unfulfilled by the LRSD. He noted recent gains on the ACT Aspire, the state standardized test (every grade level improved on writing in that test). “It’s no fault of the charter entities in terms of their submissions, but they’re reviewing academic data that actually is from a year ago,” Poore said. “Now, keep in mind we increased our academic performance in the middle of a three-year budget reduction. Keep in mind that we had to close schools and close programs, and all the turmoil of that. It says so much about our staff and the good work they are doing to move things forward.”
He told the board later that he’d asked the UA’s Office of Education Policy to examine academic growth among kids from lower-income households. “They looked at the set of results, last year’s and this year’s, and then looked at the free and reduced lunch population to see whether or not you would have what your growth was and what your expected growth should be,” he explained. The researchers then ranked the state’s 456 public elementary schools based on actual performance compared to expected performance, adjusted for household income. “Do you realize that we are one of three school districts that exceed growth when you look at free/reduced lunch with the previous test scores?” Poore asked. “We are one of three districts in the state … in the middle of all the drama that we went through.” He ticked off individual rankings for third grade for Zone 1 elementaries such as Rockefeller, Booker, Gibbs and Stephens, based on the OEP data; almost all were at or above the median.
Board member Mireya Reith asked Poore if he was concerned that adding new charters — which would pull students, and money, away from the district — could “have a negative impact on academic performance.” Poore replied, “I think that’s what warrants a deeper discussion.” Reith ended up being the only member of the state board who voted to review the Einstein proposal.
Board member Susan Chambers, who is from Northwest Arkansas, said she felt “torn” on the decision, noting that Poore isn’t an across-the-board critic of charters. “I’ve known Superintendent Poore for a long time, and this is the first time I remember him taking this particular position relative to charter,” she said. (Poore was the superintendent of Bentonville before taking the LRSD post last year.)
Poore told her that “I have never been afraid of competition” and said he believed there could be an opportunity to partner with charter schools, as per the stakeholder report. “Now what that might look like, I don’t know. … We do have entities like Einstein and others that say they want to come and be a part of things … But we need to pause right now to let things settle, to determine what’s the right course of action — and do it in a strategic way that I believe can be done together.” (He also noted, wryly, that many in Little Rock suspect him of carrying water for charter operators since he worked in Bentonville, home of the Walton Family Foundation: “I think when I came to Little Rock, there was a lot of concern about the bald guy was just going to come down and charterize everything.”)
Board member Ouida Newton said she was “very impressed” with the Einstein application, especially its work with high-poverty student bodies. She expressed hope that Einstein could help LRSD schools by showing the district how to innovate in the classroom. “I hope you understand how much I’ve wrestled with this decision, Mr. Poore. … I grappled with this, I’ve lost sleep over this. I prayed and I’ve done lots of things with this,” she said.
“I want you to wrestle a little more,” Poore told Newton. He cited Stephens Elementary, whose principal was in attendance at the meeting, and which would be closest to the proposed Einstein site. “If you look at what’s been done in terms of innovation — they have a bank inside the school. They’ve partnered with First Security Bank. The students are incentivized to do the right things with their academics, their behavior, their citizenship, their attendance. If they do well, at that school, believe it or not, there is a beauty salon — girls can go get their nails done. They can go to a game room, they can go to a film room, based on incentives. … The kids actually get a credit card — talk about innovation! The faculty gives fake cash, they deposit it to the bank teller — run by kids — and can charge up a credit card, which is a little scary, and then get to go use the credit card. So the very thing you’re saying you want, it’s actually happening right now.” When the LRSD closed Franklin Elementary at the end of this school year, students were shifted to Franklin.
“We have not had one parent complain as they’ve come into Stephens environment because of the things that Mr. Carlock [the Stephens principal] is doing,” Poore said.
During the public comment period, state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) urged the state board to review the application. The Einstein site falls within her district, Senate District 31. “It’s a struggling area,” she said. “People want to create some stability … I don’t think you need to be a part of continuing that instability by upsetting the apple cart of the schools.” She noted that the LRSD closed three schools in her district in pursuit of greater efficiency. “We’re now talking about creating schools that are smaller than the ones we closed,” she said.
“Charters get the convenience … of being concerned about the 200 -300 students that they’re going to have in their schools … we have no such convenience,” Elliott told the board. “You have the awesome responsibility of not divorcing this whole discussion from the entire community, and from the entire school ecosystem, because there is the upset that goes on when parents don’t know if my school is going to have enough kids in it to even be there next year.”
State Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock) pointed out that Poore was selected by Education Commissioner Johnny Key, the de facto school board for the district while it is under state takeover. Key reports directly to the state board and sits in on every meeting. “At some point, you have to listen to the guy that the Commissioner of Education has hired to run the LRSD, and he’s here telling you what he think should happen. … He’s saying pause, take some time, let’s do this right.”
State Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) spoke up on behalf of Einstein. “I never fail on an opportunity to speak for charter schools. I’m unashamedly a proponent of options for kids,” he said. “I have great reverence and respect for Mr. Poore. … However, in this particular instance, I think giving parents of kids in areas of this state the options to be able to — it doesn’t matter how much we have improved or how much further we have to go — if there’s one kid that doesn’t have the option because they’re stuck in a particular spot, they need the options available to them.” (The obvious bears repeating here: Dotson lives three hours away from Little Rock.)
Board member Brett Williamson made the motion to not review Einstein, and member Charisse Dean seconded. All board members voted “yes” on the motion not to review, except for Reith. (Board chair Jay Barth does not vote except to break a tie.)
Williamson’s enthusiasm for Einstein was a bit surprising, considering his comments after a packed “town hall” meeting last month on the LRSD in which many parents and others expressed skepticism about charters. Williamson said at the time that he was “open to voting differently than I have in the past” on the pending charter applications based on the stakeholder group report, “and just hearing all the concerns from the community, the people.”
“My eyes have been opened,” he said at the town hall meeting, though he added that he still believed parents needed to “have a choice about where to go educate their kids.”
After today’s vote on Einstein’s application, Williamson was asked why his mind had changed. He said it hadn’t. “I said I would consider it,” he told this reporter, referring to his August comments.
Asked what was the deciding factor in rejecting the stakeholder group’s recommendations, Williamson curtly replied “The kids.” He then walked away, precluding any follow-up.
Poore continued to argue the case against the remaining charters. “I’m not anti-options and choice. But I am about smart decision-making to impact our community,” he said during the ScholarMade presentation. He also gave a nod to Dr. Phillis Anderson, the leader of ScholarMade, whom he said had “come to the district to simply talk and reach out. That did not happen with the others.”
Anderson aims to open her charter in the LRSD’s old Mitchell Elementary building. She told the board that her proposal had the support of the neighborhood association in the area. “I have managed schools in New York as well as in Oklahoma,” she said. “I have seen district schools and charter schools co-locate and serve as thought partners with each other.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, member Diane Zook — who is typically pro-charter — voted to review the ScholarMade application, voicing concern that the Mitchell building may not be able to accommodate some students with disabilities. Reith also voted to review, but the rest of the board disagreed.
By the time Friendship Aspire Academy came up, Poore was visibly discouraged, but he took the podium once again. He noted some “weaknesses in particular on the Friendship application,” including a vague plan for transportation and limited community interest.
Joe Harris, of Friendship Academy disagreed. He said the school intended to provide transportation and had talked to many parents in Southwest Little Rock who “overwhelmingly” expressed a “need for choice.”
Poore said in closing, “I just want to be the superintendent of Little Rock, and I want to do the very best job I can for kids, and again, I’ll make one last plea today … to give us just that little bit of extra lifeline of things that can help support us,” he told the state board. “I may be now looked at as almost stupid for coming up a third time, but that’s me. I’m going to keep on fighting.”
Chambers told Poore that “we have tremendous respect for your role, and we need to acknowledge the way the votes are going so far will not make your life easier, and I wish that were not the case.” She said she wanted Poore to help the state board figure out “how we collectively can continue to better connect with the community, because if we’re not very, very careful, our decisions over time, including today, could be viewed as tone deaf. To maybe split some community members?” She said that she would like to find opportunities for “listening sessions” in Little Rock.
Reith was the only member to vote to review the Friendship application. (Again, Barth, as board chair, could not vote.)
Einstein and ScholarMade aim to open by the 2018-19 school year. Each will take over a former LRSD campus in central Little Rock — Einstein at the Garland building, ScholarMade at the Mitchell building — and will likely draw a significant number of students away from the traditional public schools system.
Einstein plans to start its Little Rock campus as a K-3 with 300 seats. It will add 75 more each year as it adds grades, eventually becoming a K-8. ScholarMade will begin with a 290-seat K-5 school and will grow by 50 seats each year, eventually becoming a K-9. Friendship has its roots in Washington D.C. It plans to open in Southwest Little Rock, a representative of the charter said today, but not until the 2019-20 school year. It will also operate a charter school in Pine Bluff.
Eventually, in several years’ time, there would be more than 1,700 new seats between the three schools combined. That’s on top of thousands of charter seats in existing charter operators such as eStem Public Charter Schools and LISA Academy. EStem intends to reach an enrollment of 5,000 in the coming years. The Little Rock School District has around 24,000 students, and its enrollment has been dropping for years.