We all know the value of experimentation. You try something, it fails. You keep trying, and eventually you get a light bulb or a man on the moon. In the meantime, however, you’ve had a lot of flops and maybe some disasters.

OK, so how do you experiment with schools? What do you do about the kids who spend three years in one of the experiments that doesn’t work?

That’s one of the questions at the heart of the charter school debate. Charter schools are public schools supported by state dollars that are granted waivers from some of the state’s regulations so they can try different approaches.

Among the success stories are the KIPP Delta schools in Helena and Blytheville. Disadvantaged students attend class there in a regimented environment with a longer school day. They are expected to go to college, and that’s exactly what has happened. But some other charter schools have been flops that didn’t last long.

Charter schools have plenty of advocates, but – and this is a generalization – they’re more of a Republican thing.

Earlier this session, Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, proposed House Bill 1040, which would have removed the authority for approving charter schools from the State Board of Education, the governor-appointed board that oversees the Department of Education. The board sometimes meets for days to review charter school applications, and some Republicans say it too often says no.

Biviano’s bill would have created a separate, presumably more friendly commission for approving charter schools. It was one of the subjects of a big education reform rally at the Capitol organized by business leaders and featuring a speech by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of the former president.

Those rallies tend to feature education reformers and nonschool people saying mostly bad things about public schools. The next day, traditional school advocates held a counter-rally. They were protesting against Biviano’s bill as well as the general direction of education reform being pushed by national conservative groups.

The bill went nowhere, though a far tamer bill by Biviano appears headed to passage. It would give the Department of Education authority to approve charter schools, with the State Board empowered to review those decisions. The department supports it, and traditional school advocates are OK with it. Still, there’s some real distrust now at the Capitol between reformer types and traditional advocates following decades of unity that have led to substantial school improvements.

I wrote in the third paragraph that the benefit of experimentation is one of the questions at the heart of the charter school debate. It’s not the biggest one. The biggest one is the one that really matters in most political issues: How do you distribute a finite amount of resources?

For the foreseeable future, most students will continue to attend traditional, non-charter schools where change comes incrementally and where everyone is served – unlike charter schools, which tend to pick and choose. Traditional schools often do costly and difficult things like teach special ed students or run buses to pick up kids all over the county – again, not really a charter school thing.

So the traditional school advocates are afraid that the big school that does all these hard things will be drained of funding by the snazzy charter school that does all the cool things. They don’t oppose charter schools – how could they given KIPP’s success? But they don’t fully embrace them.

This could be made to work. In 2011, former Rep. Johnnie Roebuck, D-Arkadelphia, spent most of the session working with different groups to create a statewide system where teachers are evaluated and then trained to improve their deficiencies. It’s meant to be prescriptive, but it very definitely sets out a process where bad teachers can get fired.

Roebuck originally was approached with the idea by education reformers whose bill was much tougher than the one eventually proposed. She worked with them and with traditional school advocates to create a compromise everyone could embrace.

It never would have gotten passed had it been preceded by a rally featuring politicians criticizing teachers. Even Roebuck, a longtime teacher-educator with a lot of credibility in the profession, had to walk it painstakingly through the process.

The lesson? You can pass hard, controversial bills, but the important work happens around a table and not behind a podium.

Let’s hope that lesson is learned moving forward. School reformers are right that the state needs more charter schools. Traditional advocates are right that the state should proceed carefully and not harm the other public schools.

Maybe they could spend more time discussing this around a table. There are lots of them in the Capitol.


Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com