LISA Academy's West Little Rock campus Rodney Bailey

Ever since the passage of Gov. Sarah Sanders’ Arkansas LEARNS bill, those of us concerned about schools in our state have been focused on the harm that LEARNS’ universal voucher program will cause our public school system. Vouchers send taxpayer money to private schools, draining resources from public schools and creating a more fragmented educational system.

But before vouchers came to Arkansas, there were charter schools.

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One doesn’t hear as much about charters these days as compared to a few years ago, but they are still with us. As the state embarks on its new voucher program, it’s worth revisiting the performance of charters today and comparing the reality to what was promised.

A charter is a school that’s publicly funded but privately operated, outside the control of an elected school board. When charters were first being expanded in the early 2000s, proponents argued that they would raise the achievement levels of all students by introducing competition. Children needed to be allowed to transfer out of “failing” public schools and into charters, the advocates said, where they could achieve at higher levels.

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For a number of years, and even now, some charter schools reported above average student test scores and high marks under the Arkansas Department of Education’s school grading system. Charter proponents point to those grades as evidence that charters are working.

When the first charter law was being considered, I argued that charter schools would seek to enroll children from circumstances which gave those children competitive advantages over their peers. I said that socioeconomic factors would be the fundamental determinant of student success, not whether the student went to a charter school or a traditional public school.

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The recently released school grades from the state education department confirm just that. The data also confirm that charter schools’ scores, on average, do not exceed traditional public school scores when schools with similar demographics are compared.

Take eStem, for example, perhaps Little Rock’s most well-known charter system. he table below shows the percentages of children who were “economically disadvantaged” and enrolled at eStem elementary schools in Little Rock from 2016-17 school year through the 2022-23 school year, along with the state’s assigned grade for the eStem elementary schools.:

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eStem Elementary Grades 2016-17 through 2022-23

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It is easy to see that the schools’ grades went from an A when about ⅓ of the student body was economically disadvantaged to a D just five years later, when over ⅔ of students were in that category. It would be fair to assume that eStem’s elementaries did not stop trying to educate the children they serve. The obvious conclusion is that the schools faced greater challenges when the percentage of economically disadvantaged students increased.

When eStem is compared to traditional public schools with similar percentages of economically disadvantaged students, the results are practically the same. In the Little Rock School District, three elementary schools have A grades, and all have the lowest percentages of students who are economically disadvantaged:

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Now consider another charter system, Academics Plus, which has two elementary schools in Pulaski County. One is in Maumelle, a community where the poverty rate is low. The other is in Scott, in east Pulaski County, where the poverty rate is significant.

The state should be asking why the same charter organization cannot replicate its results in all of its campuses, especially since the education department awarded many charters on the basis that they would help students escape so-called “failing schools.”

This pattern is typical of virtually all of the schools in the state. The charter organization LISA Academy has elementary schools in Northwest Arkansas, Little Rock, and North Little Rock.  Here is how those schools stack up for 2022-2023:

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LISA surely must afford the same opportunities to all of its students, yet the results are different based on the socioeconomic factor.

Take a look at three elementary schools in the Pine Bluff School District.

Pine Bluff Schools were taken over by the state, but no vast improvements came about. Poor student performance tracks student poverty directly, even when the state is in charge.

The same dynamic operates on the other end of the economic scale. These scores are instructive in that regard:

I have a lot more information that corroborates the story that is told by what is presented here. None of this is meant to excuse poor performance in any school, and many public districts have numerous schools with poor grades as assigned by the state. I also am not condemning any school which accepts the challenge of educating children of need. I especially appreciate Exalt Academy, a charter in Little Rock, which has accepted the tough challenge of educating children of great need.

The conclusion is quite clear. A school’s socioeconomic characteristics explain almost all of the school grades assigned by the state under its grading system.

I am not surprised by any of this.

I saw this firsthand in 2015 when I was superintendent of the Little Rock School District. I recall going to the Jefferson Elementary fifth-grade graduation. I asked the two most accomplished graduates where they intended to attend middle school.  Both said they were going to eStem.

Shortly thereafter, when eStem and LISA were seeking to expand, I asked LRSD employee Barbara Halford to determine which students had transferred directly out of LRSD to LISA and eStem. She researched, assembled and analyzed the information.  She determined that 1,856 students had transferred from LRSD to LISA and eStem from 2008-2009 through 2015.

The results were more dramatic than I anticipated. Data showed 81.9% of the students who transferred from LRSD to LISA and eStem were proficient or advanced in literacy, and 77.2% of the students who transferred were proficient or advanced in math.

In 2016, I presented this data to the state Board of Education, shortly before I was “non-renewed.” (that is, fired). I said that the LRSD’s average test scores were being negatively impacted by the state’s action in authorizing new or expanded schools that were enrolling a disproportionate number of high-achieving students. That result was simply a matter of mathematics: When you take away high scores and recalculate the averages, performance will drop.  My arguments were dismissed without any response, and the charters were expanded.

The state never has done any serious data analysis to deal with the issue, and charters are now routinely granted unless there is some glaring organizational or financial issue. The state’s record of closing charters is likewise very suspect, with closures usually coming only when a school is on the brink of complete collapse.

All of this gets worse with vouchers, which are problematic in different but related ways.

In the first place, so far about 95% of vouchers are going to families that already have their children in private or church schools. This will be a subsidy to the families, and if that were the articulated justification, I think reasonable people could discuss that issue. But the method of payment of private school tuition does not impact student achievement. If almost all vouchers are going to pay tuition for children already in private schools, how is achievement going to change?

Second, vouchers can now and in the future be used at practically any school, whether it has a record of raising student achievement or not. If we really wanted to test the voucher proposition, vouchers would only be offered to students who are currently failing in public schools, and the vouchers could only be used at schools that can show either a reasonable prospect of raising student achievement or a proven record of doing so.

Are the vouchers going to be used at schools which are better than LISA, eStem, Academics Plus or Haas-Hall? Those schools have not achieved outcomes which are better than similarly situated traditional public schools.

Why waste state money on a voucher for a student who is doing well? Or waste it on a school with no prospect of raising student achievement?

I am very certain that the students’ results will not charge, whether a student is “economically disadvantaged” or not, just by giving the student a voucher. It might be true that a student with a parent or guardian who seeks out a voucher, does the paperwork, enrolls a student in a private or church school, transports that child to school and meets the rigors of whatever the school requires will have above-average results. That student is likely to already be a high achiever. The state can easily track and report that information.

I also think a lot of students in charters will go private, which again confounds any real purpose in doing all of this.

Instead of the state of Arkansas complying with our Constitution and providing a general, suitable, efficient and unitary system of education for its students, the state continues to create and fund a mish-mash of non-unitary charter schools, funded by the state, which do not have appreciably different results from traditional public schools when students of the same demographics are compared.

Vouchers will only make this problem worse.