Seven new open-enrollment charter schools are applying for state approval in Arkansas beginning in the 2020 school year, including four in Pulaski County. In other words, seven new charter schools could be diluting money away from the state’s existing public schools and causing further economic and racial segregation in 2020.
Open-enrollment charter schools are funded by a mix of public and private money with fewer regulations than public schools, as they can apply to have regulations waived for them by the Arkansas Department of Education.
Charter schools do not have districts. Instead, students are generally supposed to be admitted through random-selection lotteries.
Each public school student is allotted a certain amount of per-pupil money from the state, and students carry this funding to whichever school they attend, charter or otherwise. Therefore, any student attending a charter school is essentially taking money away from public schools. Furthermore, charter schools do not have to provide transportation to attendees, which constitutes an additional burden on the low-income families of students.
The rationalization for starting a completely separate subsystem of schools is the good, old-fashioned free market principle of competition. If we treat education like two store-shelf products, one of which is a charter school brand and one which is a public education brand, then the two products must try to compete for the same demographic of consumers and should constantly improve to meet their demands. At least, this is how the education market is supposed to function in theory.
However, education is not a product, and if one system is better or worse than the other, the real-life consequences will negatively affect the students in either system. That being said, it is clear that the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students, as well as white and minority students, is well-documented, and that our public school system has failed to significantly close this gap.
Charter schools were supposed to be the solution to this problem. Yet, as charter school proliferation in Arkansas has ramped up over the past decade, it is time to start looking at the actual effects of charter schools on all students, rather just than those at elite charter schools like Haas Hall.
Therefore, the most pressing issue to discuss is whether or not charter schools significantly improve students’ academic outcomes.
In 2013, author Joshua L. Glazer’s book, “Choosing Charters,” showed that student achievement showed minor but statistically significant negative effects in Arkansan open-enrollment charter schools. A 2017 study by the UCA Economics Division found that Arkansas charter schools in 2014 performed better in literacy by three percentage points over public schools but one point lower in math.
Ultimately, this evidence suggests that charter schools do not offer substantial educational benefit over public schools.
Frustratingly, students at public schools in Arkansas consistently yield scores that are similar to those of charter schools, but public schools are also being actively drained of funding because students are fleeing the public education system and taking their per-pupil funding elsewhere. Because of this, it is difficult to tell whether public schools might outperform charter schools under more ideal fiscal conditions.
In addition, let’s look at who is fleeing public schools for charter schools. In the Little Rock School District, white students relocated to other schools at five times the rate of black students. As a primarily black school district, this causes the concentration of black students to increase and the concentration of white students to decrease, leading to increased segregation on a structural level.
However, it isn’t totally surprising that more white students left the Little Rock School District because charter school marketing efforts have been consistently aimed at them. Little Scholars of Arkansas, a charter school in the Little Rock School District, made it perfectly clear that white students were their target demographic when they spent spent $17,295 to send out 69,975 flyers. They sent none of these flyers to the three zip codes with the highest minority populations in Little Rock.
Charter schools have some high performers like LISA and Haas Hall, but it is important to note that they are playing by an entirely different set of rules. Haas Hall is the No. 1-performing school in the state, but the school serves zero special education students, ESL learners, or free or reduced lunch students. Additionally, only about 1 percent of students attending Haas are black and only 7 percent of students are Latino.
Meanwhile, former Bentonville schools superintendent Gary Compton has reported to the Department of Education lawyers that Haas Hall found success by only accepting the best-performing students in public school districts relative to their locations.
Haas’s supposedly random enrollment lottery has somehow completely bypassed every single low-achieving group, yet other public schools like the Little Rock school district are supposed to compete with them when they have to educate students without discrimination.
Within the school district, 74.9 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches and 11.73 percent of its students also require special education. Yet somehow, the Department of Education is expecting their test scores to compare to a school that cherry-picks the best available students.
No matter what is done to improve students’ scholastic options, socio-economic problems still present the biggest obstacle to the success of public schools, charter or otherwise. Leaving struggling students behind during enrollment and kicking students out if they are performing under a 2.75 GPA might be a successful strategy for Haas Hall, but it does nothing to uplift struggling students, which is the entire point of a free market for education.
If school-choice policies were created to offset the achievement gap and strengthen our public schools, then the evidence suggests that they have done the exact opposite.
When 95 percent of Arkansas students attend traditional public schools, creating a separate system that doesn’t benefit those struggling is a mismanagement of priorities.