Alana Samuels, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, turns again to Little Rock for material, this time an expansive article on continuing segregation in Little Rock schools.

She brings in recent events, including the firing of School Superintendent Baker Kurrus.

After writing anecdotally of racial disparities and facility disparities — comparing the relatively new and majority white Roberts Elementary in white and upscale northwest Little Rock with a majority black decrepit school, Wilson Elementary, Samuels continues:

In January of 2015, just a few months after two new members were elected to the five-member Little Rock school board vowing to make the district more equal, the state stepped in and took over the district, citing the board’s inability to fix six academically distressed schools in majority black neighborhoods. It then approved the expansion of two charter schools—which tend to enroll disproportionately higher-income student bodies—a move that will add 3,000 charter seats to the 6,700 that already exist within the boundaries of the 23,000-student district.

The Walton Family Foundation, an Arkansas-based nonprofit started by the founders of Walmart, has gotten involved too, pushing for more charter expansions and vowing in January to spend $1 billion on the efforts nationally. Last week, the state abruptly removed Baker Kurrus, the superintendent of the Little Rock schools and an outspoken critic of charter schools, replacing him with the superintendent of the schools of Bentonville, where Walmart is headquartered. (Local papers say Kurrus was fired; the state says his contract expired.)

In the background of all this recent controversy is a lawsuit filed by a handful of black plaintiffs last fall against the Arkansas Department of Education for subjecting the black students in the district to intentional racial discrimination. 

There’s this pullquote too, from the late federal Judge Henry Woods:


“Down deep, many whites don’t want their kids sitting next to blacks.”

It’s not 1957, with troops and violent clashes, Samuels acknowledges. 

Today, those who oppose integration are still fighting it, but in less overt ways. They have moved to outlying areas to get away from lower-income, black families and have prevented those families from following them. They’ve built new schools and established charters in these majority-white areas so that white children don’t have attend lower-performing majority-black schools. And they’ve made sure that the people who are trying to push back against these actions don’t have power in the district.

What’s stunning about today’s methods of avoiding integration is that they are, by and large, legal, but they nevertheless leave black students stuck in schools that are separate and unequal.

Hard-hitting stuff, if familiar to readers of this space. It does help illustrate the problem Mike Poore faces in succeeding a generally popular leader in Kurrus who, as Benji Hardy has written, understood well the racial dynamics at play here. Poore is making the rounds in Little Rock now,starting with writers at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a reliable organ for Walton school agenda talking points. Poore could be the best available educator in Arkansas and courageously independent and still face a daunting task.


Samuels’ article details the problems here through experiences of parents and people who’ve worked in the schools. There’s a reference, too, to reporting you’ve seen here from UALR’s John Kirk about the city’s segregated housing patterns. The article devotes plenty of space to the damaging impact of charter schools. It’s a massive piece, worth reading.

The community rose up against the segs in the 1950s, Samuels relates, but she adds:

They were able to succeed because residents wanted to push back against the sheer audacity with which the segregationists had pursued their goal. Advocates for integration might have a much harder time today, because the tactics people use to avoid sending their kids to integrated schools are more subtle, and the lines of right and wrong so much less clear.

More than 50 years ago, the community of Little Rock had to decide whether or not to continue to condone segregation. The community came together, for a moment, in support of integration. It may never do so again.