Brian Chilson

Editor’s note: Longtime Little Rock School District board member and former district Superintendent Baker Kurrus has been following the “school choice” movement for decades, watching as the promised benefits of charters never materialized but unanticipated drawbacks did. The current push for vouchers not only won’t help our students; it will hurt those already hurting, he says. This is the second installment in a series.

I got a lot of comments from the piece I wrote last week. A number of people asked me about the broken Mickey Mouse watch. I can’t tell the story without getting choked up, but I will share a bit more with you in a moment.

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It is Parental Choice Week in Arkansas, per the governor’s proclamation. Most proponents of school choice say we need more choices so that students can “escape” failing schools. The underlying notion must be that the school, not the student, is the variable in the equation. If you take a “failing student” out of a “failing school,” the student will presumably perform at a higher level in the next place.

Unfortunately, that is not what really happens, based on the actual data. If you want to see the numbers, go to the state board meeting archives from March 31, 2016, and look at LRSD Exhibit B.

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As the superintendent of the Little Rock School District, I presented the hard facts, and got fired shortly thereafter. In summary, the students who left the Little Rock School District were achieving, on average, at the 80th percentile when they left. The LRSD students who had transferred to the charter schools in question made a choice to leave schools where they were excelling, and they went to places with lower percentages of poor kids.

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The charter schools with high percentages of low-income kids generally get D’s and F’s, and fail. God bless those folks for trying, but they have the same struggles that traditional school districts have.

So let’s look at Academics Plus, a charter district with two elementary schools on opposite ends of Pulaski County. One elementary, in Maumelle, has an A under the state grading system. On this campus, 23% of students are classified as low income. On the other side of the county is Scott Charter, run by the same folks. It is a D school. At the Scott location, 69% of students are classified as low income.

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It is fair to assume that the charter organization works as hard in both places, with the same dedication, same general academic program, same level of commitment and same funding. But if the school made the difference, then why don’t the kids in both schools achieve at the same level, or even achieve at a level which is somewhat similar? If the school made all the difference, then you would expect that the same charter organization would achieve the same results in all of its schools.

So the state keeps ranking schools by the performance of the children in them, with very little consideration for anything but test scores. Do we rank golf courses by the scores of those who play them? By that measure, if I went to Pebble Beach and tried to play golf, I would have a terrible score. The state of Arkansas would give Pebble Beach Golf Club an F, I guess. Could it be that I had no opportunity to play when I was a kid, or that I wasn’t prepared for the challenges?

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If you look at the elementary schools in Little Rock with F grades, almost all have more than 90% low-income students. And legislators and state regulators keep slamming Little Rock. They keep slamming Eastern Arkansas. The state comes in, takes over these “failing” districts, does what it can, then gives up and goes away. Nothing changes.

It is clear, even if it is not simple. Generally speaking, the highest performing elementary schools have the lowest numbers of low-income and seriously disabled students.

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There is no correlation to the condition of the school facilities. Forest Park Elementary and Jefferson Elementary are two of the oldest schools in the Little Rock School District, but they perform at a very high level. They have a high affluence ranking. The new Southwest High School is a marvelous, state-of-the-art facility, but has a state “grade” of F. It happens that 86% of its students are classified as low income.

Why is this not discussed, and why do we keep opening up more and more publicly funded schools where the affluent children congregate, with poor kids left behind?

Nothing will change until the people with power go to where the problems are and meet the people who need their help.

Most legislators, and many non-educators, blame the schools for the poor shape of our communities. They think the way to make a community better is to improve its schools. They have it backwards. The way to fix a school is to make the community better. That is hard work, but that is what needs to be happening. Stabilize neighborhoods. Develop opportunities so people can afford to stay in the same place and keep their children in the same schools. Spend state money to lure employers to places where people need steady work. I could go on, and I will on another day.

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So let me introduce you to the little girl with the Mickey Mouse watch.

I was the school superintendent at the time, and I was walking around a so-called F school with the principal, who remains an astoundingly dedicated educator who cares about every child. The school was full of great teachers working their tails off, and I was there to let them know that I appreciated their efforts.

The tiny girl was sitting in a small room with a volunteer retired teacher who was helping her with reading. The teacher waved at me. I walked over, and the little girl quietly asked if she could read to me.

She was small for her age, and in the second grade. Her clothes were clean, but I don’t think she was the first child to wear them. Her shoes were scuffed. Her hair was in beautiful braids, each with a little plastic barrette on the end, right below a couple of colorful beads. Someone had poured a lot of love on her. I sat next to her, and she read, somewhat haltingly, a book about animals. She was so proud. After she finished, she showed me her Mickey Mouse watch. It was colorful. It meant a lot to her. It was special to her, and was a source of pride for her. I saw that it didn’t work, but I told her it was wonderful. Someone in her life probably wished they could give her more, but that was what they could do.

That precious child is a gift from God, loved by someone who is trying to give her a future. Does that family have a choice?  Who is choosing them?

Dedicated people are working with the most needy students, and those tireless people are told by our state that they are failures. What choices do these people have? Give up?

But enough of that real life. Those poor folks in so-called F schools made bad choices. Let’s cut taxes, hire a rah-rah guy to come to town, twirl our yellow scarves and go to lunch.

There are a lot of choices we could make. I choose to register with ARKids Read, like my children have, and volunteer to help a kid with reading. I hope I get matched with a child who needs a new watch.