BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – Earlier this year the legislature approved Act 509 to restructure the process for opening a new charter school by transferring authority from the state Board of Education to a team of officials within the Education Department.
Last week, for the first time the newly-formed group voted on a series of charter school applications. It approved an application for a new charter in southwest Little Rock and denied applications for new schools in Springdale and North Little Rock. On its second day of hearings it approved another new charter school in Pulaski County.
Charter schools are public schools and receive state funding. However, they are exempt from many state regulations and are allowed to experiment with innovative teaching strategies, in many cases in order to better prepare youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Many legislators and educators support more charter schools in Arkansas as a part of an overall effort to expand school choice options for parents. Others advocate a “go slow” approach, saying that charters must be accountable for how they spend tax dollars.
Parents and school officials in every state in the country are continuously debating the merits and the potential scope of charter schools. When the Arkansas legislature convenes in regular session in 2015, it is very likely that lawmakers will file bills to open up the charter school process.
Act 509 is meant to streamline the application process for groups that seek to open new charter schools. It was amended several times in the legislative session to address concerns from teachers, administrators and parents.
The new authorizing panel also decides on expansions, relocations and revocations of charter school licenses.
There are two basic types of charters. An open enrollment charter is run by a tax exempt organization and a district conversion charter is one that had been a traditional public school and was converted into a charter by the local school district.
Arkansas has 18 conversion charter schools and 19 open enrollment charters. Arkansas has a cap that limits the total number of open enrollment charter schools to 24, but there is a provision in state law that allows for more charters to be approved once the cap is reached. When the number of open enrollment charters reaches within two of the cap, the cap is increased by five.
Eighteen charter schools in Arkansas have closed since 2001, for reasons such as low enrollment, financial problems or a lack of academic progress.
At a ceremony at the Clinton Presidential Library, 10 Arkansas teachers received Bessie B. Moore Awards, valued at $1,000 each, for incorporating lessons about economics in their classrooms.
Moore was a teacher in rural Arkansas who was appointed to the state Library Commission and in the 1950s became one of the state’s leading advocates for libraries. She went to work for the Education Department, where she pushed for stronger classes in economics, organizing the Arkansas Council on Economic Education.
Arkansas high school students are required to take a semester of economics, which can count as half a unit toward fulfilling the graduation requirement of three units of social studies.