Leader Blues

Friday, November 13, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Charter schools

Wisdom has come slowly but surely at the state Board of Education, aided by a few personnel changes. The board, which has a little higher quotient of appointees by Governor Beebe, signaled this week that it will scrutinize charter school applications more carefully and skeptically. It turned down six.

No longer will it be sufficient to show that a charter school would put some children in a different building with a lofty sounding educational doctrine. Charter applicants will have to show that they will offer something decidedly different and effective for children who are struggling in the regular school environment. It has not always been so in Arkansas.

Charter schools are a wonderful development, or at least the concept is. Thoughtful educators are invited to formulate programs that stimulate poor and low-achieving children who lag in the normal school environment. The intense KIPP schools are the best template. They have performed wonders with ghetto children. Helena-West Helena furnishes an excellent model, and now it will be expanded to Blytheville.

But charter schools also can be a ruse for establishing private schools with taxpayer support. They can be a version of the old academies set up in many communities when the public schools were desegregated at the end of the 1960s. They were a haven for white children in communities that had a large quotient of African-American and poor children. The education was no different, just the youngsters at the desks.

The charter student bodies are not all white, but the self-selecting students tend to be better motivated and their parents more involved. So it is no surprise when students like those in the eStem schools in downtown Little Rock score better than those in the regular schools. They also did better when they were in the same classrooms.

Great care needs to be taken in approving charter schools because they drain dollars and students, usually the self-motivating ones, from the public schools, leaving the schools worse and the children who are left behind in greater jeopardy.

Governor Beebe expressed some skepticism about the rapid growth of charter schools, especially in instances where they altered the racial composition in the public schools and undermined their desegregation. His appointments to the Board of Education have gradually replaced those of Mike Huckabee, who by 2006 had appointed all the members. In myriad ways, elections do make a difference.

—Ernie Dumas