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This is cherry-picking?

Argument against charters falls short, again June 7, 2020 at 1:39 a.m.

A wise man and noted opinion editor once said to challenge your opponent's strongest points, not his weakest. You're more likely to change minds, kid, and you might even learn something yourself. It's easy to "take a line"--as Mencken told us--when the other side is silly or nuts. But to take on an entrenched concern with an entrenched argument, have a go at one of its strong pillars.

But the thing is, charter school opponents give us so much easy stuff.

How anybody, especially educators, especially politicians in the most challenged of communities, can be against minority kids getting a better education is simply beyond us. Speaking of weak arguments, they often point to charter schools that have failed as examples of why nothing new should be tried--without acknowledging that failing charter schools can be closed. Unlike so many failing traditional public schools.

But there is one argument that keeps coming up, maybe because it's considered a strong one by its adherents: Charter schools cherry-pick the best students from these communities.

The argument goes that students (and parents) who care about their schooling will flock to charter schools, leaving the most challenging students behind at the local neighborhood schools, thus weakening the traditional school system as a whole.

It's an argument used again and again, although those making it seem to forget that many charter schools open their classroom seats to children using a blind lottery system. And under such a system, it is impossible to cherry-pick anybody.

Then there is a story such as the one that appeared this past week in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Which takes a sledgehammer to the entrenched arguments.

The story might have got better play by the local media if so many things weren't happening all at once. The protests, the virus, the launch, the mayor, the president, the governor. All are competing for front-page space this month.

But Cynthia Howell's story, the one anchoring the Arkansas section on Wednesday, might have long-term consequences for hundreds of students and families across the state, too. That is, six new charter schools could be up and running in Arkansas starting next year. And by next year, we don't mean this August, but the August after--in the 2021-22 school year. That's how long it takes to turn this battleship around. More's the pity.

Nothing is a done deal, yet. The applications for these schools have to be reviewed by the state Charter Authorizing Panel this summer, and the state Department of Education gets final say. But if things work out (for the students), new charters could open in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Springdale, Hot Springs, Harrisburg and Osceola. Every one of those schools could be approved without exceeding the state's cap of 34 open-enrollment charters. Why the state has such a cap is another editorial entirely.

But two paragraphs of Cynthia Howell's story caught our eye, and attention:

"Responsive Education Solutions of Lewisville, Texas, is proposing two new schools in Arkansas: Premier High School of Hot Springs and Premier High School of Springdale.

"The two schools, which would target students who have dropped out of their traditional high schools or are close to doing so, will join four other Arkansas campuses already operated by Responsive Education Solutions . . . ."

This is cherry-picking?

According to the school's proposed charter--the constitution or raison d'etre of each school--the Premier schools in Hot Springs and Springdale would serve 300 high school students each with not-so-steady futures in high school. And serve them with such things as extended hours, personalized learning plans, credit recovery, dropout prevention and even visits to college campuses.

Steven Gast, superintendent of the Responsive Education schools in Arkansas, put it this way: "The Premier model is so unique and so different. It's one of those few types of schools that doesn't carry a kind of competitive stigma with it. A lot of new charters--in the eyes of the local public school--almost become a threat because it looks like they are trying to take kids away from the local school. The whole mission of a Premier is to go after and recover those kids who have already left the system."

So there should be no reason for a local superintendent or school board to oppose these two charters. Not even a monetary one.

A cynic might say that even the Premier schools will find opposition, because the traditional public education industry doesn't want any more charters, lest they succeed. And even the Premier school would, according to our story, target kids who are only "close to" dropping out. Thereby taking a few months of state payments, for each kid, out of the local districts. And that might be enough money to worry over.

Only a cynic might think that. But as a friend said only this past week, just because something is cynical doesn't mean it's wrong.


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