“Charter schools create an alternate form of public schooling where schools are granted significant autonomy but are held accountable for results. The ‘charter’ is essentially a contract … Unlike other public schools, parents specifically request the charter school and if the school fails to attract students, or if it fails to meet the terms of the charter, the charter can be revoked and the school closed.” Arkansas Policy Foundation 1996 report.

(July 2009) New charter schools are planned in two troubled Arkansas school districts identified by the Policy Foundation. The districts are Blytheville, which earned an ‘F’ (failing) grade in the Foundation’s 2007 Arkansas School District Rankings report; and West Memphis, which received a D-minus grade in the survey.

KIPP Letters of Intent

KIPP Delta, Inc., filed letters of intent with the state Department of Education recently seeking approval of new open-enrollment charters in Blytheville, West Memphis and Pine Bluff, which earned a ‘C’ (average) grade in the Foundation survey. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) has operated the Delta College Preparatory charter in Helena since 2002. The charter’s first group of graduates is expected to enter college in fall 2010.

The three proposed KIPP schools would serve 90 students in fifth grade in 2010 and expand to 1,170 students in grades K-12 by 2018.1 The new charters would serve students in the Delta region.

KIPP,2 a non-profit organization describes itself as “a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life.” KIPP operates 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia serving around 20,000 students.

The program serves at-risk students. The KIPP site states:

Eighty percent of our students are low-income, and 90 percent are African-American or Latino. Nationally, more than 90 percent of KIPP middle school students have gone on to college-preparatory high schools, and more than 80 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college.

Critics of Arkansas’s charter school experiment, the Policy Foundation noted (October 2007) ignore that all three expansions (1999, 2005, 2007) of the Arkansas charter statute occurred after policymakers concluded charters serving at-risk students serve an important role.

Other Charters Proposed In West Memphis

Two other organizations filed letters of intent with the Department of Education proposing charters in West Memphis. They are the Humanitarian Outreach Development Group and Daughters of Zion All Women’s Bible College.

Conclusion: Ideas Matter

The Arkansas policy climate has changed dramatically since 1996 when the Policy Foundation, one year after its founding released a report that termed the charter law “weak,” and in need of reform. Eighteen open-enrollment charters operate today in Arkansas, and a debate is underway about lifting the 24-school state cap on open-enrollment charters. Fourteen proposals are pending before the Department of Education.

The need for education reform is greatest in failing school districts identified by the Foundation in annual surveys based on standardized test scores. The creation of new charters in Blytheville, West Memphis and Pine Bluff is the next step in this reform process.

— Greg Kaza

1 Howell, Cynthia. “Proposals roll in for charter schools in state.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 2, 2009, p. 1A.

2 2 Knowledge Is Power Program: http://www.kipp.org