Tuesday, October 11, 2011

TOP STORY >> Group pushes school choice to raise scores

Leader staff writer

Charter schools are helping children in Pulaski County receive a good education despite interference from the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts, according to Luke Gordy, executive director of the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation.

Gordy spoke to the Sherwood Rotary Club last week about local education efforts.

He focused on how charter schools are helping Pulaski County’s children receive a good education and how North Little Rock and Little Rock School Districts are hindering what the foundation stands for.

“We are strong believers in choice,” Gordy said.

He said the foundation doesn’t care about the delivery method — public, private, homeschooling — but it wants high-quality education for Arkansas students, which is often not found in traditional public schools.

Gordy said integration issues sometimes get in the way of the foundation’s objectives. He told the club that a judge has said, “My black child doesn’t have to sit next to a white kid for a good education.”

The reason the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts filed the lawsuit against charter schools is because they want the $70 million in desegregation funds to keep flowing into county schools, Gordy said. About $40 million of that funding goes to Little Rock schools.

“If we made decisions based on what is right for the children, we would make the right one every time. That doesn’t happen very often,” he added.

Little Rock’s argument in the lawsuit is that it’s trying to support minority students, which are being disproportionally served in the public school system, Gordy said.

He told Rotary Club members that the charter school in East End has 4,000 children on the waiting list to enroll. That means people aren’t happy with public school education and think charter schools are providing better quality education, Gordy added.

Another option for high-quality education are public magnet schools, but those require a 50-50 ratio of black and white students and 70 percent of those on the waiting list for such schools are black, he said.

Gordy said Arkansas is one of the few states where research shows charter schools have outperformed public schools.

“The teacher is the primary single element in the classroom,” Gordy said. One advantage of charter schools is that they can hire teachers who have professional experience in a field but not necessarily a teaching certificate, while public schools require such a certificate.

A Rotary Club member asked if there was any statically information on neighborhood schools vs. big school districts like Pulaski County. Gordy directed members to look at http://www.bushcenter.com.

Both Sherwood and Jacksonville have expressed interest in splitting from Pulaski County Special School District and forming their own districts of “neighborhood schools.”

When asked about the difference between charter schools and public schools, Gordy explained that a charter school contracts with the state Education Department. A charter school is public once it is approved. It can waive some requirements, such as hiring teachers that aren’t certified or licensed. It can also be closed down by the state if it decides to take its charter, or contract, away.

A Rotary member said bureaucrats like big school districts because fewer outsiders can penetrate their ranks. Other members agreed.

Gordy was asked about a voucher system coming to Arkansas. He said the state isn’t ready but the foundation has been talking about that for the past seven years. A voucher system is one in which parents get a voucher for the cost of a student’s education and they can bring that to whatever school they want their children to attend.

Several countries use vouchers. “That’s getting into something we’re not ready to tackle yet,” Gordy said.

He added that charter schools, while contracted by the state to have a certain number of students, could go back and ask the state permission to grow and enroll more students.

Gordy said children are not to blame for their poor test scores. “Parents have low expectations. It’s not the kids who are under-performing. Kids will rise to the occasion.”