The Arkansas Board of Education will be deciding Thursday whether to review the expansion plans of two public charter schools in Little Rock.
eStem Public Charter School and LISA Academy plan to expand their campuses by a combined 3,000 students. That has drawn opposition from some who see the potential expansion as harming efforts to improve academic achievement in the Little Rock School District.
LISA is preparing to open a new K through 6 elementary campus on Westhaven Drive in Little Rock. LISA currently operates STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) oriented schools in west Little Rock and North Little Rock for 6th through 12th grade students. The new venture would add close to 600 students to its current 1,500-student operation.
Luanne Baroni, middle school principal at LISA Academy West, says by expanding into the elementary level, the school can have more of an influence in the earlier grades and prepare students for the more rigorous coursework encountered later on.
“We draw students from all over central Arkansas. Some of them come to us well-prepared and some of them come to us very under prepared,” Baroni says. “The general idea is that if we have a K-12 program, we can have a better influence over that early preparation for those students, which is so critical.”
Most students at LISA are from Little Rock, Baroni says, but many come from around Pulaski county. Some of the elementary school applicants live in Saline and Lonoke counties, she says.
The eStem expansion would establish a new high school on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock* in the 2017-18 school year.
John Bacon, Chief Executive Officer for eStem says the school also hopes to establish a K-9 elementary and junior high campus in east Little Rock, near Heifer International headquarters. He says nearly 6,400 students have applied to attend eStem next school year.
“We feel good about our proposal,” says Bacon. “We feel its a strong plan and it will benefit the students and families in the city of Little Rock.”
At its meeting in mid-February, the state's Charter Authorizing Panel approved eStem's expansion plan in a 7 to 1 vote. By a similar margin, the same panel approved LISA Academy's plan.
While advocates for expanding the charters tend to agree that families of children in Little Rock and surrounding areas would have more choices for a free public education, the plans have attracted a vocal opposition. A petition circulated by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel opposing the expansion of the two schools has received the support from hundreds of people, according to the group's executive director Bill Kopsky.
Sam Ledbetter, a former member of the state Board of Education, says the plans could lead the Little Rock School District to face the loss of some 17 million dollars in per-pupil state funding if the 3,000 charter school seats happen to be filled by children who would normally attend LRSD schools.
The district is already preparing for a nearly 37 million dollar shortfall with the loss of state desegregation aid after 2017. The loss of desegregation funding is the result of a federal court-approved settlement agreement reached by three Pulaski county school districts, the state of Arkansas and two groups of intervenors in 2014.
Last year, the state Board voted to dissolve the LRSD school board and bring the district under state supervision, citing six schools in academic distress. Ledbetter was board chair at the time and voted for the takeover in a 5 to 4 decision.
He says the issues of funding would likely compound with another problem:
“It will result in a higher percentage of children from low-income families, children from minority families, children with special-needs and English language learners—a higher concentration of all of the categories in the Little Rock School District,” he says, arguing that the end result would be a more segregated student population in the LRSD.
Little Rock school superintendent Baker Kurrus made similar conclusions in a letter he sent to the Charter Authorizing Panel last month. He has also noted a correlation between the expansion of charter schools in the city with the district's growing percentages of special-ed children and children qualifying for free or reduced price lunches, an indicator of low-income background.
“These are matters of fact, rather than matters of opinion or matters of politics,” says Kurrus.
“We love our special-needs kids. We love all our kids. But if you find your special-ed percentages are drifting up, you need to understand why,” he says. “Our special-ed percentages are much higher than the schools under consideration.”
When LISA Academy was given a charter in 2004, Kurrus says the LRSD's percentage of students who qualified for free and reduced price lunches was around 55 percent. Since then it has increased to the current figure of about 75 percent.
According to data from the 2015-16 school year, 50 percent of LISA Academy students and about 30 percent of eStem's student population currently qualify for free or reduced price lunches.
Close to 12 percent of the LRSD's nearly 23,000 students are special-ed. In the same year, eStem's special-ed population constituted a little over 7 percent of its nearly 1,500 students. LISA Academy's special-ed population constituted about 6.5 percent of its 1,525 students.
Luanne Baroni, the middle school principal at LISA Academy West, contends the charter school has done a lot to accommodate for low-income and special-needs students.
“Our special education population in the last three years has grown from 59 students to 101 students. And we have the full spectrum of special-needs and special education. Our minority and poverty rates have grown steadily over the past several years,” she says.
John Bacon, CEO of eStem, says his school also seeks to attract many different kinds of students.
“[We use] an open enrollment process and it's a random anonymous lottery, so we don't really have any way to affect how those percentages look. We just will continue working hard to serve the students we have and continue to try and recruit as diverse of an applicant pool as we can get,” says Bacon.
At its Thursday meeting, the state Board of Education can decide to review the Charter Authorizing Panel's previous approval of the schools' expansion at a later meeting, or accept the Panel's decision, which would let the plans go forward.
*KUAR is licensed to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock