I think the die is cast for a state takeover of the Little Rock School District at a meeting this morning. It will be the product of a well-organized campaign by the business community. I said my piece about it this week.
But some uncomfortable facts about the situation and also a message from someone who works in those “failing” schools, which are more accurately described as products of society’s failure.
* The School District has failed poor black children for decades. It wasn’t until the School Board gained a black majority that anybody started talking about taking over the school district.
* Key reason why state Education Department officials recommended state intervention: The District is trying to do too much too fast. All its proposals are sound. Just too much in too short a time. So, I guess, the state proposes to do less, slower.
* Many of the leading advocates for takeover have no children in schools, have never had children in school. to them, the wrong kind of children constitute the majority in the LRSD — disadvantaged, homeless, non-English speakers, desperately poor.
* Facts lie. See John Riggs and the lament about 60 percent of the elementary test scores in the lower quartile Find me a school district with 80 percent impoverished students scoring in the top quartile and hire their superintendent.
* The takeover advocates presume the wisdom of all Superintendent Dexter Suggs (I slipped in a name first used) says. HE chose the principals at the failing schools. HE has added to the administrative ranks. HE has not proposed a meaningful financial plan to deal with loss of students to white flight charter schools and desegregation funds. Would the critics like the Democrat-Gazette and School Board member Leslie Fisken, who used school information for partisan purposes, be so supportive of a superintendent criticized by a different group of Board members, the sort endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce. ALSO: Research shows superintendents have little impact on student achievement.
* The state just got a federal court to buy its argument that it has cured decades of race-based actions against the interests of the LR School District. Now it proposes to strip it of democratic governance.
* Race. To the Van Tilburys of the world who think schools are driving people away from Little Rock I say, get a clue. The Little Rock School District (which is not allowed to share in westward city growth) almost certainly has a majority black population. It has a majority black school age population. They are majority impoverished. Fact: Many middle income white people don’t want to live in geographic areas with majority poor minority populations.
* No parent of a current Little Rock school child spoke yesterday in favor of a state takeover.
I’ve said I favor state takeover primarily because it will provide the acid test for the school reformers. No more cream skimming. No more setting up white flight schools where poor people can’t reach them. Give the Walton Foundation Baseline Elementary and its current students; Henderson and the students the Walton-financed Quest charter school families feared getting near and see what they can do. If they zoom to the top quartile, I’ll join John Riggs at a news conference where he can drop me in a dunking booth.
And now the plutocrats. It’s the word employed by Barclay Key, an occasional correspondent and somebody committed to helping the poor kids in the Little Rock School District. He volunteers at that awful Henderson Middle School, judged failing because half the student body doesn’t score at a sufficient level on tests.
He sent the following note with an e-mail to those involved in today’s takeover consideration. I feel his pain:
I cannot speak before the state board today, so I’ve forwarded my e-mail to the entire board lest anyone think that people actually agree with the plutocrats who spoke yesterday. Their comments reeked of petulance and privilege. I regularly speak with numerous parents and teachers and several principals. Not a single one has expressed support for a state takeover. The LRSD has numerous problems. They can and must be addressed sooner rather than later. But the LRSD is the entity to fix the problems, and our current board has shown the most promise in making meaningful progress.
Meanwhile, I frequently volunteer at Henderson Middle School, and I’ve never seen any of these plutocrats there. LRSD teachers have unfulfilled projects on the Donors Choose website. We’ve started a monthly book club at Henderson and need support for buying books. We’re in need of a chess club sponsor at Gibbs, where my children attend. In short, there are plenty of ways to help if these folks actually want to help our students. Their actions communicate that they really don’t give a shit about students, but they’ll drop everything to come testify against the LRSD.
And will someone please ask these plutocrats and members of the state board if they have actually spoken with any parents and teachers from these schools? Have they actually visited any of the schools that they think the state (i.e., an overpriced consulting group or charter school organization) can fix? Doris Wright spoke for the plutocrats yesterday, and she hasn’t even consulted with Tara Shephard or Jim Ross, the board members for much of her zone! It’s amazing how these folks know so much with so little research or firsthand knowledge.
You can quote me on anything.
Dear ADE board members:
I hope this note finds you doing well. Amid the exchange of letters and growing publicity in recent days, I want to reiterate my opposition to the state of Arkansas taking over the Little Rock School District. I generally concur with the sentiments that Dr. Jim Ross and Ms. Joy Springer expressed in their responses to Ms. Leslie Fisken’s letter, which now appears to be replete with distortion and fabrications, if not outright lies. It appears to be part of a concerted, organized effort by local elites to undermine the LRSD. I hope you will see past their shenanigans and listen to the voices of reasonable, local leaders like Ross, Springer, and Ms. Tara Shephard, who represents my zone. I also invite you to consult with parents like me or many of the fine teachers and principals in our district.
We are the immediate stakeholders in our local schools, and citizens of Little Rock who are active in public education have laid the foundation for significant and overdue reforms. It would be a travesty to undermine grassroots efforts by local people to fix local problems. A state takeover of the district diminishes the voices of local people and communicates that the people furthest from our local problems are better equipped to fix them. This perspective stands in stark contrast to the democratic self-governance that many of us champion.
Aside from these personal misgivings, I further contend that a state takeover of the entire district sets an untenable precedent that the state will take over other districts with schools in academic distress. Indeed it must because it cannot simply ignore districts in similar circumstances. Thus, a state takeover of districts with academically distressed schools is ultimately an unsustainable solution.
Of course, the state already has a tremendous degree of influence on the LRSD, so one might reasonably wonder what the state would do with a takeover. I fear that the state board would succumb to the influence of local and state elites whose ears only bend toward self-styled “education reformers,” people who may know something about corporate business but haven’t stood in front of a room full of poor middle school kids. We’ll waste thousands upon thousands of our limited tax dollars to hire some consulting group from outside the state instead of finding solutions where they already exist, from our own parents and teachers. These “education reformers” are just waiting for us to cut the check so that they can provide some standard report full of largely meaningless educational jargon, further erode the morale of our teachers and community, and ignore the tremendous diversity of needs between our neighborhoods and schools.
Cities across the country have chosen this unfortunate route. I’m hopeful that Little Rock can be different. Let’s use that money to invest in our own human resources. Let’s stand behind our locally-elected board members and our own educators as they determine our best courses of action and are held accountable for those decisions. Nothing would boost morale more right now than for the state board to express solidarity with the LRSD board as they continue oversight of our schools.
Dr. Barclay Key