Chris Heller, lawyer for the Little Rock School District, has prepared a memo outlining for the state Board of Education what the district intends to do to correct academic deficiencies at six schools and, not incidentally, pleads for preservation of local control of the district.
There’s a strong push for takeover from powerful business leaders, particularly from the ultra-wealthy Billionaire Boys Club of school reformers (Walton, Stephens, Murphy, Hussman.) As I’ve written before, I have some sympathy to those who favor a change of control. The district hasn’t moved fast enough to streamline administration and concentrate resources in classrooms. It remains under continuing threat of creaming of better students from the district to Walton-financed charter schools, creating an ever-more-impoverished student body that serves a handy whipping boy for the “reformers.” Higher income students from more functional families are always easier to educate than those left behind. If the district is inevitably to be destroyed by this tactic, I have sympathy to removing the red herrings and let others have their way with a difficult situation. If they can succeed where such efforts have failed nationally, then let’s begin.
For those still engaged in the Little Rock School District, I recommend reading it — whether to cheer or scoff. Heller and his firm are, of course, paid to represent the board. But he speaks from a wealth of historical experience.
He outlines the district’s plan for improvement to the six schools, spanning elementary to high school years. He notes the state Education Department has been complimentary of the district’s cooperation in the past and its ideas.
Heller also notes that the state law that allows state intervention is directed at schools in academic distress not entire districts to begin with. No one has identified resistance to improvement efforts at those schools. Rather, they talk of board-superintendent disagreements and, without specifics, the supposed resistance of the teachers’ union. (This has become a tiresome trope, unsupported by specifics. Where’s the similar complaint about the superintendent’s failure to find effective principals?) Heller says it is unconstitutional to arbitrarily depose the local school board without reasons other than academic distress. Certainly, he said, the state can intervene at the six schools and the district has expressed willingness for strong state intervention there.
Heller exaggerates a bit when he says the Board has spoken with “one voice.” My School Board member, Leslie Fisken, has all but abandoned her duty to represent me and the district. She votes against just about everything the other six members endorse. She clearly thinks the state should take over. Why she continues to serve is inexplicable. It is laughable for her to complain of board opposition to the superintendent when she’s the solo holdout in 6-1 votes.
Heller notes, too, that there are other full districts in academic distress in Arkansas that have NOT been taken over. Giant Little Rock, with all its moving parts, includes many success stories. There’s no precedent, Heller says, for taking over a district where the great majority of schools are not in distress.
Heller says, too, that “teamsmanship” — a criticism of Little Rock — is highly subjective. Disagreement is to be expected in a democracy. Boards are expected to support superintendents wherever possible but they must also hold superintendents accountable. “The first may look like collegiality and the second may look like a lack of ‘teamsmanship,’ but they are both necessary.”
Heller notes that the U.S. Supreme Court is often deeply divided and argumentative, but no one calls it “dysfunctional” for its 5-4 votes. (Let’s admit it. Civil rights lawyer and business community devil John Walker is right about at least some of the critics. They didn’t call 4-3 votes by a white majority “dysfunctional,” but use it for split votes by a black majority board. White is right in some quarters.)
The state Board has counseled the Little Rock schools against trying to do too much at once in the six distressed schools, Heller urged the same restraint for the board. ” … we hope that SBE will focus on fixing six schools and not dilute that effort by trying to do too much.”
A petition drive opposing a state takeover is gaining steam.
A community meeting in favor of preserving local control is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday.