Two-Way: Kathy Webb Says Arkansas Charter School Review Lacks Transparency

Mar 18, 2016

Arkansas Department of Education Building in Little Rock near the state Capitol building.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

This week the Arkansas Board of Education scheduled a meeting to consider halting a review process of charter school expansions that it had just voted to embark upon the week before and then reversed the decision to consider rescinding the review.

The agenda was set Thursday for a meeting on Friday, and then early Friday the agenda items to stop the review were removed. KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman spoke with Kathy Webb in advance of a rally hosted by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel at the state Capitol calling for more transparency in the state Department of Education.

KAUFFMAN: This rushed agenda setting at least from the public’s eye - we had no precursing discussion about it - do you think, are you arguing that is was an effort to circumvent the public?

WEBB: It was just something that left a really bad taste in people’s mouths yesterday. I can’t speak for what they did but it was a great relief to see that it’s not going to be on the agenda this afternoon.

KAUFFMAN: The review is for several charter schools, not just in the LRSD, but do you see a threat form unfettered expansion? We should keep in mind of course that the district in Little Rock is under control of the state board.

WEBB: The district is under the state board and when that happened – I think at this point it’s irrelevant what side of that issue one might be on - we are what we are. I think [Superintendent] Baker [Kurrus] has done an outstanding job.

I think the comparison of charter schools to public schools has not always been done by using comparably measurements, I think some of the demographics have not been accurate. I for one would like to see us press pause, let’s give Baker some time. I think we’re making great progress.

This has ramifications not only for this current generation of kids, it has ramifications for this whole city for decades to come. I think we also need to look at cities that have basically gutted their public school districts with unfettered expansion of charters.

KAUFFMAN: Charter proponents argue that there are waiting lists for these schools. They can prove that some parents want their children to go to them. Those lists do exist.

WEBB: Yes, they do exist. I think we as a city have culpability in not expanding in some of the parts of the city where we had people that were very eager for traditional public education. I think we are seeing that under Baker, we’ve got plans to do that now. Many of those folks to whom I’ve spoken, they want to see their kids in public schools and depending on where they live they might not have had access, or easy access, to a traditional public school. If we’re successful in building some new public schools like we’ve been talking about then you’re not going to see as much of a desire to attend a charter school or a different kind of school.

KAUFFMAN: With this review process now going forward, in Little Rock it’s for eSTEM and LISA Academy, you mentioned earlier that you think the state Board needs to see some data about demographics. Can you explain more what you’re talking about with these two schools in mind?

WEBB: There have been certain schools in different cities who have touted switching to charters or privatization and how much better those schools did. Just looking at data last night, the make-up of the charter schools is very different from the makeup of the Little Rock School District in terms of English as a second language, economic status, in terms of special education, special needs. I think it’s really important when we look at data that we compare apples to apples as opposed to apples to oranges.

KAUFFMAN: This attempt to rescind the motion that we saw at the tail of this week, now it’s back to normal so to speak, you said at the  beginning of this interview it left a bad taste in your mouth. What do you think generally about the state Board of Education, Johnny Key and the Department of Education? The district is under state control and it seems there’s a big outcry from traditional groups in the district.

WEBB: I served in the legislature with Johnny Key. He’s a standup guy, he was very involved in education issues. I have spoken to him several times since he has been put in his position at the department of ed. He works well with people regardless of what their viewpoint’s on. At the end of the day I’m going to be working with Johnny Key I hope regardless of what happens.

KUAR also asked state board member Brett Williamson who proposed to rescind the review motion for an interview. Williamson said he is too busy traveling for an interview.