Sunday, July 29, 2007

NWA's New Charter School Seg Academies

Charter schools are publicly financed schools operated by individuals or non-profit groups that can request waivers of some state regulations. They still get the same state funding as public schools (nearly $6,000 per pupil), but there is no independent research on whether Arkansas’s charter schools are any more effective than traditional public schools. The Legislature intended for charter schools to create special programs to help a struggling demographic in the regular school population, but it hasn't quite worked out that way.

The charter schools in Northwest Arkansas have become the 21st century equivalent of the old segregation academies, providing education for privileged whites and effectively excluding minority and Hispanic students. Haas Hall Academy has a minority population of only 11.1%, while nearby public school Springdale is 47.5% minority and Fayetteville is 25.6%. It is even worse in Benton County where the charter School of the Arts has 7.7% minority enrollment, compared with 40.1% in the Rogers public schools.

These bastions of ethnic segregation are supported by
the $800,000 Walton-financed charter school promotion subsidiary at the University of Arkansas College of Education, headed by a Walton Foundation-nominated director,
Caroline Proctor, formerly of the failed charter school in lily-white Maumelle. So much for the University's supposed commitment to diversity, either on its own campus or in the charter schools it supports for the Walton interests.

Not satisfied with the current drain on area public schools, Representative Keven Anderson (R-Rogers) sponsored a bill in the last session to double the number of charter schools authorized in Arkansas and to give preferential admission treatment to the children of any charter school's founders. The legislation was supported by every Republican legislator from Benton and Washington County and opposed by the three House Democrats. The bill was amended later to keep the limit at 24 charter schools, but the big wigs still got the special treatment in admissions for their children.

These exclusive charter schools, financed with our tax dollars and supplemented with Walton Foundation money, are notoriously inefficient and top-heavy with administrative salaries and expenses. Administrative salaries for the state's public schools averages 6.1% of their budgets. Haas Hall's
budget for the 2004-05 school year shows 36.4 percent of expenditures go toward paying the five administrators' salaries. In 2006, state officials reported that Haas Hall also owed $79,816 in fees and fines to the Internal Revenue Service and about $63,000 total to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration and the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System. Even a public school graduate can tell this is not a good deal for the taxpayers.

There are more charter school applications to come from the UA-Walton education engineers who seem determined to undermine our traditional public schools.
Angela Foster plans to apply for a 2008-09 charter school and get taxpayer funding for a sports-themed charter school run out of her Bentonville-based Aspire Gymnasium to serve about 10 elite athletes who already work out at her gym 20 hours a week. The Aspire Gymnasium also offers cheerleading classes.

Citizens who support public education and equality of opportunity would be well-advised to ask legislative candidates in the next election whether they share those values.

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