Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

TOP STORY >>Parents question Jacksonville charter school plan

Leader staff writer

Many of the parents at a North Pulaski High School Monday night meeting said they weren’t interested in a Jacksonville charter school if it took away funds from the Pulaski County Special School District.

Thirty parents were at a special parent-teacher association meeting brought to them by Jacksonville lawyer and former state Rep. Mike Wilson, who said he isn’t satisfied with Jacksonville’s schools generally.

“Jacksonville needs alternatives,” Wilson said. A charter school is funded by taxes but is exempt from certain state regulations. Nearly 5,000 students attend 20 charter schools across the state. Denice Todd-Flournoy, mother of one North Pulaski student, asked how diverse charter schools are.

“They are not in a box like a regular public school, but it’s the beauty of the program,” Mary Ann Brown, who regulates and helps approve charter school applications for the state Department of Education, told her.

Wilson said alternatives are already in use for Jacksonville’s children whose parents have found public education to be inadequate. These include private schools, virtual or online schools.

After an August meeting when parents met at the community center to discuss creating a charter school in Jacksonville, the mayor and city council created a steering committee as part of an effort to create such a school.

Members have not yet been appointed.

Wilson said he learned at that meeting what would be required to create a charter school.

“Schools should emphasize accountability, curriculum, discipline,” Wilson said.

Brown said charter schools are public schools intended to provide unique and innovative programs.

When an organization applies to the board of education to create a charter school, it asks for exemption from state regulations.

Charter schools can be exempt from the traditional school calendar or length of the school day, for example.

Mandated salary requirements for teachers are also exempted. In return, schools are scrutinized under stricter accountability standards, Brown said.

Two kinds of charter schools exist in the state: open enrollment and district conversion.

Students from outside the district’s boundaries can attend open enrollment schools.

Conversion schools are public schools converted to charter schools. Only students from within the district boundaries can attend conversion schools.

Brown said parents, teachers and community leaders, public schools and nonprofit organizations have created charter schools in the state. Charter schools receive financing per student, just as traditional public schools.

“When those students go to charter schools, they take the funding with them,” Brown said.

Charter schools do not receive transportation or facility funding unless under the district’s jurisdiction. She said none of the state’s charter schools have opened in new buildings.

Charter schools are a growing movement in the state.

This year, three new schools have opened, in Hope, Rogers and Little Rock. Two closed last year.

“The first year is crucial,” Brown said. “Like raising a baby.”

She said the schools that closed did not have the background and knowledge necessary to understand public school financing.

The Department of Education highlights increased opportunity for learning, choice for parents and students, accountability, innovation in teaching, new professional opportunities for teachers, encouraged parental involvement and creation of competition among public schools as benefits of charter schools.

“In Arkansas, laws were made as to how those opportunities could be afforded to Arkansas students,” Brown said.

No charter school is exempt from providing the state’s core-required curriculum or special education, according to Brown.
Parents expressed concern that charter schools seek to take the smartest, highest-achieving children out of public schools.
Charter schools do not have an application process but if enrollment exceeds capacity, who attends the school is decided by lottery.

“A charter school is a private school with state funding,” Cindy Milby, a mother of two North Pulaski students said.
She said she thinks the district would want a charter school because it would be cheaper.