Char­ter panel now fewer, meets to­day

Four of seven from out­side depart­ment

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CYN­THIA HOW­ELL

An Arkansas Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion panel re­spon­si­ble since 2013 for ini­tial de­ci­sions on char­ter school ap­pli­ca­tions, re­newals and re­vo­ca­tions has been over­hauled, re­sult­ing in a ma­jor­ity of its mem­bers com­ing from out­side the agency.

The re­con­sti­tuted Char­ter Au­tho­riz­ing Panel — ap­pointed by Arkansas Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sioner Johnny Key as au­tho­rized by Act 462 of 2017 — meets for the first time at 9:30 a.m. to­day for an ori­en­ta­tion and again Aug. 15-17 to hold hear­ings and make de­ci­sions on 10 pend­ing ap­pli­ca­tions for char­ter schools seek­ing to open in the 2018-19 school year.

Four of the pro­posed schools would be lo­cated in the greater Lit­tle Rock area, which is home to about a dozen of the state’s two dozen open- en­roll­ment char­ter school sys­tems. Others would be in Pine Bluff, Ben­tonville, McGe­hee and Weiner.

Open-en­roll­ment char­ter schools are tax­payer-sup­ported schools that op­er­ate

in­de­pen­dently of tra­di­tional school dis­tricts and are el­i­gi­ble for waivers of some state rules and laws that ap­ply to tra­di­tional schools. Con­ver­sion char­ter schools — also sub­ject to re­view by the Char­ter Au­tho­riz­ing Panel and el­i­gi­ble for waivers — are op­er­ated by tra­di­tional dis­tricts.

The panel’s de­ci­sions on any char­ter school ap­pli­ca­tion, amend­ment, re­newal or re­vo­ca­tion are sub­ject to re­view by the Arkansas Board of Ed­u­ca­tion. The gov­er­norap­pointed Ed­u­ca­tion Board can ac­cept the panel’s de­ci­sion or choose to hold its own hear­ing on a pro­posal be­fore mak­ing a fi­nal de­ci­sion.

The new seven-mem­ber char­ter panel — to be led by Ivy Pf­ef­fer, the Arkansas Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion’s re­cently ap­pointed deputy com­mis­sioner — is made up of three Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment em­ploy­ees and four peo­ple from out­side the agency.

At least three of the four new mem­bers from out­side the agency have some his­tory with char­ter schools.

They in­clude Nac­ca­man Wil­liams, a former state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion mem­ber who not only par­tic­i­pated in char­ter school de­ci­sions as a board mem­ber but also is a long­time em­ployee of the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion of Ben­tonville, one of the na­tion’s fore­most ad­vo­cates for char­ter schools.

Wil­liams, a former ju­nior and se­nior high school math teacher who has a doc­tor­ate in ed­u­ca­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion from the Univer­sity of Arkansas,

Fayet­teville, is cur­rently the spe­cial in­ter­est pro­gram direc­tor for the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion. As such, he as­sists in manag­ing grants di­rected by in­di­vid­ual mem­bers of the Wal­ton fam­ily.

One of the first tasks for Wil­liams and the rest of the new char­ter panel will be a de­ci­sion on a char­ter ap­pli­ca­tion that is tied to Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion prop­erty. In May, the Arkansas Demo­crat Gazette re­ported that one of this year’s char­ter school ap­pli­cants, Schol­arMade Ed­u­ca­tional Ser­vices Inc., is ask­ing to open a char­ter school at 2410 S. Bat­tery St., in Lit­tle Rock, in a former ele­men­tary school build­ing that Schol­arMade would lease from a Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion en­tity.

The state’s new char­ter panel re­places a nine-mem­ber au­tho­riz­ing panel that was made up en­tirely of the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment’s deputy and as­sis­tant com­mis­sion­ers and other top-level staff. Those staff mem­bers headed the agency’s of­fices for in­struc­tion, school dis­trict fi­nance, ed­u­ca­tor li­cen­sure, fed­eral pro­grams, school ac­count­abil­ity sys­tems, ed­u­ca­tional tech­nol­ogy and spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion.

Pf­ef­fer is the only per­son who was a mem­ber of the past panel to be ap­pointed to the new panel.

Key, the com­mis­sioner, noted the new state law when asked about the au­tho­riz­ing panel changes.

“The new law gave us a chance to stream­line the op­er­a­tions of the panel, in­clud­ing the panel size,” Key said Mon­day in an email.

He also said that the ex­tra re­spon­si­bil­i­ties put on Ed­u­ca­tion

Depart­ment staff as a re­sult of char­ter school panel work was a rea­son to turn to peo­ple from out­side the agency for some re­lief.

“When you fac­tor in prepa­ra­tion time along with the time in­volved in the hear­ings, it was a con­sid­er­able ad­di­tion to the work­load of the ADE team mem­bers,” Key wrote. “I am con­fi­dent we can move to a seven-per­son panel with­out sac­ri­fic­ing the qual­ity of the re­view process.”

Key said he con­sulted with the Arkansas Pub­lic School Re­source Cen­ter, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion cre­ated to pro­mote high qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion in schools, par­tic­u­larly ru­ral and char­ter schools, to iden­tify po­ten­tial panel mem­bers.

The cen­ter is fi­nan­cially sup­ported in part by the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, but also by school dis­trict and char­ter school mem­ber­ship dues and var­i­ous grants.

Key said he also con­ferred with Charisse Childers, direc­tor of the Arkansas Depart­ment of Ca­reer Ed­u­ca­tion, for a panel mem­ber be­cause char­ter school ap­pli­cants of­ten seek waivers of state laws and rules that are con­nected to ca­reer and tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

“We looked for non-ADE ap­pointees who would have some level of knowl­edge about char­ter schools,” Key said.

Be­sides Pf­ef­fer, the panel’s new chair­man, a former as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner for teacher ef­fec­tive­ness and li­cen­sure, and Wil­liams, who was on the state Ed­u­ca­tion Board from 2004 to 2011, the new panel mem­bers are:

■ Jeremy Owoh, the state Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment’s new as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner

for ed­u­ca­tor ef­fec­tive­ness and a former deputy su­per­in­ten­dent in the Jack­sonville/ North Pu­laski School Dis­trict. ■ Mike Her­nan­dez, the newly ap­pointed state su­per­in­ten­dent for the Of­fice of Co­or­di­nated Sup­port and Ser­vice, who is a former su­per­in­ten­dent of the Hot Springs School Dis­trict and a former deputy com­mis­sioner at the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment.

■ Kathi Turner, deputy direc­tor for ca­reer and tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion at the Arkansas Depart­ment of Ca­reer Ed­u­ca­tion.

■ Former Rep. Mike Wil­son, D-Jack­sonville, an at­tor­ney who ad­vo­cated for the es­tab­lish­ment of char­ter schools in Jack­sonville, chair­man of the Arkansas Pub­lic School Re­source Cen­ter’s pol­icy board and who once sought to in­ter­vene in a fed­eral law­suit as a de­fender of Pu­laski County area char­ter schools.

■ Toyce New­ton of Cros­sett, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Phoenix Youth and Fam­ily Ser­vices that serves low in­come youth in south­east Arkansas and who, as a mem­ber of the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion from 2009 to 2016, acted on char­ter school ap­pli­ca­tions, ex­cept when she was chair­man and didn’t vote.

Scott Smith, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Arkansas Pub­lic School Re­source Cen­ter, on Mon­day said the new panel has a good bal­ance of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the north, cen­tral and south­ern parts of the state and it in­cludes mem­bers —Her­nan­dez and Wil­liams — who have ex­pe­ri­ence with char­ter schools and/or schools of in­no­va­tion in Louisiana and Florida. He also com­pli­mented the in­clu­sion of a panel mem­ber

who has ex­per­tise in ca­reer and tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion as many of the dis­trict op­er­ated con­ver­sion char­ter schools cen­ter on en­hanced ca­reer ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams.

“It’s nice to see some­one who has ac­tu­ally had char­ter ex­pe­ri­ence be on the char­ter panel,” Smith said. “It’s also nice to see a ma­jor­ity-mi­nor­ity board in place to re­view a lot of these ap­pli­ca­tions. These are all pos­i­tive in­di­ca­tors as we move for­ward.”

The panel has two mem­bers who are white, three mem­bers who are black and one mem­ber who is of His­panic eth­nic­ity.

Tele­phone mes­sages to New­ton and Wil­liams were not re­turned Mon­day af­ter­noon.

Re­gard­ing the po­ten­tial con­flicts for Wil­liams in serv­ing on the char­ter panel while work­ing for the Wal­ton foun­da­tion, Smith said that Wil­liams had been a state Ed­u­ca­tion Board mem­ber for sev­eral years and that if his mem­ber­ship then was not a con­flict, then Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment lead­ers must be con­fi­dent that there is not a con­flict now.

Wil­son, the former law­maker, said Mon­day that the panel mem­ber­ship will be a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But he was in­volved in the for­ma­tion of the Light­house Acad­emy in Jack­sonville sev­eral years ago and, more re­cently, he has be­come fa­mil­iar with other char­ter schools as a re­sult of be­ing a board mem­ber for the Arkansas Pub­lic School Re­source Cen­ter.

Mem­bers of the Char­ter Au­tho­riz­ing Panel are not en­ti­tled to a salary for their work but their travel ex­penses will be re­im­bursed, Kim­berly Friedman, a spokesman for the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment said.

The panel was first formed by state law in 2013 at which time it was to be com­prised of Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment staff ap­pointed by the com­mis­sioner of ed­u­ca­tion.

Smith re­called Mon­day that the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment staff mem­ber­ship on the panel was a com­pro­mise at the time be­tween those who wanted the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion to con­tinue to be the sole au­tho­rizer of char­ter schools and those that wanted a sep­a­rate, more in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion to be the au­tho­rizer.

Act 462 of 2017 al­lows for in­di­vid­u­als out­side the depart­ment to serve on the panel. The short law reads: “The Com­mis­sioner of Ed­u­ca­tion shall ap­point a pub­lic char­ter au­tho­riz­ing panel that may con­sist of in­di­vid­u­als from out­side the depart­ment as well as pro­fes­sional staff em­ployed at the depart­ment to serve at the plea­sure of the com­mis­sioner.”

The pre­vi­ous panel mem­bers were Mark Gotcher, then deputy com­mis­sioner; Deb­o­rah Coff­man,then chief of staff; Stacy Smith, as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner for learn­ing ser­vices; Greg Rogers, as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner for fis­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive ser­vices; Eric San­ders, as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner for re­search and tech­nol­ogy; Lisa Ha­ley, spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion di­vi­sion man­ager; An­nette Barnes, then as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner for pub­lic school ac­count­abil­ity; Bobby E. Lester, direc­tor of fed­eral pro­grams; and Pf­ef­fer, then an as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner for teacher ef­fec­tive­ness.

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