Study: Char­ter schools aid de­seg­re­ga­tion

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

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - 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:

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