LITTLE ROCK — The issue of school choice and its effect on traditional public schools - particularly in regard to open-enrollment charter schools and the Little Rock School District - was at the center of a spirited town hall meeting attended by about 300 people Tuesday night at Philander Smith College.
The event, organized by Arkansans for Education Reform and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, was built around the 2010 documentary film Waiting for Superman, which tracks the efforts of five families to win seats in charter schools as a way to avoid enrolling their children in academically failing neighborhood schools or, in one case, a satisfactory school that just didn’t meet one child’s academic need.
Education Town Hall meeting held at Philander SmithWatch Video
The featured tuition-free charter schools all had more applicants than they had seats. As a result, students were selected for enrollment at the schools by random lottery systems, leaving some students from very low-income families with seemingly no other choices but their local, poorly performing neighborhood schools.
None of the featured families or schools were in Arkansas, but Arkansas law does permit charter schools and there are nearly a dozen in Pulaski County that operate independently of the three public school districts in the county. The Little Rock district and attorneys for black students in the three Pulaski County school districts are challenging the establishment of those schools in federal court, arguing that they hinder efforts by the districts to meet their desegregation obligations.
Little Rock School District Superintendent Morris Holmes, one of seven panelists at Tuesday’s meeting, quickly challenged the premise of the session, saying that its intent was to “demonize” traditional public schools.
“Little Rock public schools has schools that can whip rings around private schools and whip rings around charter schools,” Holmes said. “It happens every day. We have schools that are in need of a great deal of growth. Some struggle.
“This is not a nice and polite forum, however it might be cast,” he added. “This is about a war to make all schools good for kids. The war is about how we do it.”
John Bacon, chief executive officer of the e-Stem Public Charter Schools in Little Rock, discounted any argument that the charter schools “cream the top,” or serve children who are more advanced or otherwise different than those served in other Little Rock district schools.
He said he is tired of all the “bashing” that is done of the different kinds of schools and said it is incumbent on all educators to work every day to find ways to meet the needs of all students.
“Some schools have quit looking for answers,” he said.
“When you start talking about choice, that means somebody gets left out,” said Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, another panelist and an attorney who represents black students in the 28-year old Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit.
“Who is left out? It’s the people who have the most distance from the median of the community,” he said. “They are the ones who are undereducated and undervalued. They stay in the schools that are the worst schools.”
Walker objected to forcing people to choose between good and bad schools. “In a democratic society, you shouldn’t impose that kind of choice on citizens,” he said.
Walker said school choice - which he said was an euphemism for discrimination - comes about when a community has racial diversity and that there are few private schools in the cities that are largely made up of one race. In Little Rock, there is polarization of the races that is marked by Interstate 630, he said. Schools and communities south of the interstate tend to be less affluent and schools are not as high achieving as the communities and public schools north of the interstate.
He called school choice “an effort to privatize public education, demonize public education and end public education.”
Arkansas’ Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell told the audience that charter schools are permitted by Arkansas law and that the state Board of Education has charged him and his staff with planning how to advance the charter schools and with fixing traditional public schools for the children who attend them.
“In my view, charters are the laboratories, those experimental places because we give them options and give them waivers and we give them opportunities to do things we don’t regulate,” Kimbrell said. “One of the challenges we have before us as an agency is what are the things we need to remove as barriers to success in schools?What can we do to replicate what is happening in some of the other schools in this state that will allow access to a quality education for every child no matter what delivery system we use?”
“We have to fix not only those traditional schools and help them get better but I truly believe when those traditional schools are not meeting the needs and are not being responsive to the citizens, there has to be another choice,” he said.
Gary Ritter, chairman of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, denied arguments by Holmes and Walker that the charter schools are causing the schools to re-segregate, but instead students are leaving schools in which their race is in the majority to go to schools of choice.
“If I ran a school, I’d be focused on serving the children who are there and not restricting those who want to go,” Ritter said.
Virginia Walden Ford, who is visiting fellow for the Heritage Foundation and led the Washington, D.C. Parents for School Choice, said she has returned to her native Little Rock to live and will continue to be an advocate for parents in this state. She said the different interests must learn to get along and not be suspicious of each other in trying to help students.
Scott Shirey, executive director of the KIPP Delta Public Schools, a four-campus charter school system in east Arkansas, told the crowd of teachers, parents, policymakers and community leaders that “leadership, leadership,leadership” were the critical elements to improving schools and student achievement, but that state-imposed licensing requirements can be a barrier to getting the best people into school leadership jobs.
He also said that providing access to his school requires it to send out 20 buses a day to cover 800 miles to bring the students to the campus. When necessary, he and his faculty members go to a student’s home for parent conferences if there is not another way.
Rex Nelson, president and executive director of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities, served as the facilitator for the panel discussion.
The Little Rock forum was part of Participant Media’s effort to use the film - which was shown in part at the forum - as the basis for engaging local leaders, policy makers, educators, parents, students, interfaith leaders and others in discussions on education policy. Town Hall events have taken place in 12 cities nationwide and will continue through 2011 with support from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust.