Charter schools are public schools that operate on a contract, or charter, which allows them increased operational autonomy. Although charter schools do have greater freedom regarding some aspects of schooling—such as curriculum or scheduling decisions—state laws govern how charter schools are authorized, the possible length of a charter, how many charter schools may exist in a state, and who may teach in a charter school. In 2018, approximately 3.2 million students attended more than 7,000 charter schools nationwide. In Arkansas, approximately 28,200 students attended eighty-two charter schools.
In Arkansas, these schools are granted provisional charters for up to five years, after which the Arkansas State Board of Education reviews their academic and fiscal efficacy to decide whether to renew the charter. State laws dictate the requirements of teachers in charter schools. In Arkansas, it is not necessary for charter school teachers to hold certification. While some state laws allow charter schools designed for specific student populations (such as single-sex or gifted education), the schools generally may not select among applicants and often are required to use lotteries to apportion the limited number of slots available. Charter schools, like conventional public schools, may not endorse any specific religious views. As public schools, all charter schools participate in annual state standardized testing.
Controversy over charter schools usually centers on school finance. The first issue concerns the amount of per-pupil funding following the child who chooses a charter school over a district school. Depending on state law, all or part of a student’s per-pupil funding goes to the charter school in which a student chooses to enroll. Generally, charter schools receive lower per-pupil funding than traditional public schools. Charter school advocates argue that all funding should follow a student to a new school, since these are public school students like any others. Charter school opponents argue that traditional public schools are drained of essential revenue when students leave.
The second major financial issue concerns facilities. As in many states, charter schools in Arkansas, unlike traditional public schools, do not normally receive any direct state funding for school facilities. However, state law does allow for grant and loan programs, which are not funded by the state. According to Act 739, passed in 2015, some state funds can be authorized to aid in building facilities for charters that are not in academic or fiscal distress. The same arguments regarding per-pupil funding apply to arguments over facilities funding. To meet funding needs for school facilities, philanthropic foundations sometimes step in and provide charter schools with low-interest loans. Supporters believe that charter schools provide parents with choices and that charter schools can apply competitive pressure that will motivate traditional public schools to improve. Charter school opponents seek to preserve existing arrangements, such as conventional districts that lose revenues when open-enrollment charter schools are started nearby. In addition to citing concerns over resources, opponents object to the potential for charter schools to reinforce segregation along racial and class lines. Finally, controversy also exists regarding teacher licensure requirements, as charter schools sometimes obtain permission from their authorizers to employ uncertified teachers.
The charter school movement first gained traction in Minnesota, where the first charter school law was passed in 1991. The goal of this movement from the beginning was to create schools that could have the flexibility to innovate and raise student academic achievement without being constrained by district regulations. Most states have since followed suit. By 2018, only six states did not legally recognize public charter schools—Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota (excepting those that serve Native American students), Vermont, and West Virginia. Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam have also enacted charter laws. It is important to note, however, that these laws vary dramatically in their restrictiveness. Laws in some states have led to the dramatic proliferation of charter schools. For example, Texas and Arizona continue to see exponential growth in the number of charters as they consistently authorize new schools and enact favorable legislation.
In Arkansas, the first charter school law was passed in 1995. Originally, this law only allowed for conversion charter schools. These were district schools that were permitted some level of operational freedom from their district’s central administration. In 1999, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a new law allowing for the start-up of twelve open-enrollment charter schools. The primary difference between these types of charter schools is that open-enrollment charter schools can recruit students from outside a district’s attendance boundaries. In some states, colleges or approved nonprofit organizations can authorize charter schools, but the State Board of Education is the only legal charter school authorizer in Arkansas.
Legal changes in 2005 allowed for the possible authorization of up to twenty-four open-enrollment charters and extended the length of a school’s initial charter from three to five years. The Arkansas charter law was revised again in 2007; one important change was the removal of the restriction that new open-enrollment charter schools had to be phased in evenly across Arkansas’s four congressional districts. An act by the Arkansas legislature in 2011 essentially removed the limit on charter schools in the state set in 2005 by allowing the cap to increase by five whenever the number of authorized schools comes within two of the limit.
As charters grew in the state and more students began to transfer from public districts, the legislature in Arkansas dealt with more challenges. The issue of maintaining desegregation in Arkansas schools came front-and-center in 2013 as so-called school choice began to be more legitimized. The Arkansas Quality Charter Schools Act required new charter schools to be evaluated based on their potential impact on segregation of surrounding public schools. It also formed a Charter Authorizing Panel—composed of staff from the Arkansas Department of Education appointed by the Commissioner of Education—that would handle all matters concerning the authorization and renewal of charter schools. After the passage of this law and the Public School Choice Act of 2013, the matter of school choice became a more focused issue in Arkansas politics.
After Asa Hutchinson’s election in the 2014 gubernatorial race, charter school options grew and legislation expanded to provide more favorable conditions for school choice in general. In 2015, Hutchinson signed a bill into law that allowed students with learning disabilities and those dependent on a military parent to apply for tuition vouchers at non-public schools. The new governor also appointed Johnny Key to the position of education commissioner in 2015. Key—a strong proponent of school choice when he was a state senator—was a controversial choice for the position, as Arkansas law required the commissioner have ten years’ experience in teaching and school administration. Key had no such experience, so legislation had to be passed to change the requirement, which then allowed for “indirect experience” in education. After Key’s appointment, the number of charter schools in Arkansas almost doubled. In 2017, Hutchinson signed into law a bill to require school districts to report unused or underutilized facilities to the state and allow nearby charter schools rights to buy or lease those facilities at market value. This essentially gave charter schools, especially within populous districts, access to facilities that are funded by taxpayers, which caused concern among opponents of charter school expansion.
The LEARNS Act of 2023, signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, removed any limits on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state. The act also requires that schools deemed to be performing poorly partner with a charter school.
For additional information:
Arkansas Department of Education: Charter Schools. https://dese.ade.arkansas.gov/offices/public-school-accountability/charter-schools?msclkid=203e94b3c0ca11ecaf043df7d58c6797 (accessed April 20, 2022).
Education Commission of the States. https://www.ecs.org/charter-school-policies/ (accessed April 20, 2022).
Howell, Cynthia. “Charter Plans Surge for Next School Year.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 23, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/23/charter-plans-surge-for-next-school-year/ (accessed April 24, 2023).
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. https://www.publiccharters.org/our-work/publications (accessed April 20, 2022).
Rose, Caleb P. “The Academic Impacts of Attending a KIPP Charter School in Arkansas.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2013. Online at https://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/889/ (accessed July 6, 2022).
Marc J. Holley
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
North Little Rock, Arkansas
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