Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Study: Charter schools aid desegregat­ion

UA researcher­s don’t understand case, attorney for LR district counters

- CYNTHIA HOWELL

Open-enrollment charter schools in Pulaski County are helping rather than hindering racial desegregat­ion efforts in traditiona­l public schools, concludes a new study by researcher­s at the University of Arkansas at Fayettevil­le.

But the study drew sharp criticism from an attorney for the Little Rock School District, who said the authors of the study don’t understand the federal-court-approved school-desegregat­ion requiremen­ts in the county.

The analysis of the impact of charter schools on desegregat­ion was released Monday in advance of a status hearing set for 10 a.m. Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Brian Miller in the 26-year-old Pulaski County school desegregat­ion lawsuit.

The issue of state-approved charter schools has been raised in pre-hearing documents sent to the judge and could be discussed at the hearing.

Nathan C. Jensen and Gary W. Ritter of the university’s Office for Educationa­l Policy found in their analysis that white students in Pulaski County who transferre­d to charter schools were more likely to come from schools that had an above-average white enrollment.

Similarly, black and Hispanic students and those of other racial and ethnic groups who transferre­d to charter schools were likely to come from schools with above-average minority enrollment.

“When this occurs, these transfers actually make the traditiona­l public schools more racially balanced, not less,” the researcher­s said. “It seems that claims suggesting that charter schools impede the ability of [Pulaski County] to become more integrated are simply unfounded.”

The study calculates the Little Rock district’s racial makeup as 78 percent minority including blacks, Hispanics and other racial and ethnic groups.

In contrast, the three Pulaski County districts typically group white students with other racial groups to compare to blacks.

The researcher­s also said restrictio­ns on charter school enrollment in Pulaski County would be detrimenta­l to minority students who are more likely to enroll in charter schools than their white peers and who are more likely to come from families without the economic means to attend private schools or those in more affluent settings.

Chris Heller, an attorney for the Little Rock School District — which has objected to state-approved, independen­tly run charter schools in Pulaski County because of their effect on desegregat­ion efforts — said the report “should be an embarrassm­ent to the University of Arkansas.”

“The authors obviously have no idea about the desegregat­ion efforts they purport to analyze or any of the requiremen­ts for desegregat­ion in Pulaski County,” Heller said.

Miller, who recently became the presiding judge in the long-running case, had asked attorneys for the different school districts and other parties to put into writing whether the Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock school districts should be declared unitary, or desegregat­ed, and released from federal-court monitoring.

The Little Rock district has already been declared unitary but is still cooperatin­g in interdistr­ict student transfer programs designed to help desegregat­e all three districts.

Attorneys for the Little Rock district responded with doubts about the Pulaski County Special district’s compliance with its desegregat­ion obligation­s in part because “of the loss of students and funding caused by the proliferat­ion of open-enrollment charter schools.”

Heller and Clay Fendley, another attorney for the Little Rock district, wrote to the judge that the charter schools — approved by the state without limits on racial makeup or student transporta­tion requiremen­ts — are some of the most racially segregated schools in Pulaski County.

The Dreamland Academy, which has a 91 percent black enrollment, and Academics Plus Charter School in Maumelle, which has a 15 percent black enrollment, were cited as examples.

Ritter and Jensen said there are traditiona­l public schools that are equally, if not more, segregated than the charter schools. Seventeen of the 20 most segregated schools in Pulaski County are traditiona­l schools, they said.

“There is just no basis to allege that charters are causing racial segregatio­n of the Little Rock public schools,” Ritter, director of the Office of Education Policy, said in an interview. “It’s just plain silly.”

But Heller countered: “The difference is that our effort has been to reduce and eliminate segregated schools not create new segregated schools.”

In the study, Ritter and Jensen, a research associate, addressed questions about where the charter school students come from; the race and family income of chartersch­ool students; the desegregat­ion impact on the Little Rock schools; and whether the students are coming from schools that are more or less integrated than the charter schools they now attend.

The researcher­s reported that there were 3,469 total students in eight open-enrollment charter schools in Pulaski County and 51,040 in traditiona­l public schools.

There were 1,468 first-year charter school students in grades two through nine in the eight charter schools in 2008-09, not counting the Little Rock-based Arkansas Virtual Academy that serves students statewide.

Of those first-year students, the authors of the study said 493 were from the Little Rock district, and 364 were from the Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock districts. The origin of 611 students was unknown because they presumably came from other counties or states, private schools, or home schools, the study said.

“The number of students transferri­ng to charter schools from schools in Pulaski County is insignific­ant compared to the total number of students in Pulaski County,” the study said. “It seems unlikely that this small number [less than 7 percent] would significan­tly impact racial integratio­n.”

There are 10 open-enrollment charter schools in Pulaski County for the 2009-10 school year, which does not include the Virtual Academy. There are 18 statewide.

Ritter and Jensen found that there were 227 students — 95 white and 132 minority — whose transfers to charter schools aided desegregat­ion at their Little Rock district school. There were 94 transfers — 11 white and 83 minority — that reduced the level of desegregat­ion at their former Little Rock schools.

Of the total 493 Little Rock district students who transferre­d to charters in 2008-09, 36 percent were white, 54 percent were black and 10 percent were “other.”

A total of 44 percent were eligible for subsidized school meals because of low family income, Ritter and Jensen said.

That compares with about 65 percent of students in the Little Rock district eligible for subsidized meals, Heller said.

Heller has argued that the charter schools attract students who on average are higher achieving and more affluent. That is due in part to the fact that the charter schools provide almost no free school bus transporta­tion.

The Office for Education Policy study also included a list of most integrated schools in Pulaski County, which includes the Lisa Academy Charter School and the three eStem charter schools, as well as Little Rock’s six original magnet schools that were specifical­ly designed as part of a court-approved desegregat­ion plan to attract a 50-50 mix of black-and-white students.

Heller said the list illustrate­s the district’s reliance on magnet schools for desegregat­ion. If the district should discontinu­e its magnet program, it could lose six of 11 schools that have an equally balanced racial makeup.

Yet the study determined that a desegregat­ed Little Rock school would have a minority enrollment of 68.6 percent to 88.6 percent, he said.

“By this definition ... the magnet schools are not integrated schools,” Heller said. “They talk about the types of transfers that would be beneficial to the integratio­n of LRSD. Among those would be white students leaving the magnet schools, according to this report.”

The study is available at the Office for Education Policy Web site: http://www.uark.edu/ua/oep.

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