The public speakers at the state Board of Education began with an impassioned blast from Sen. Joyce Elliott questioning a hidden agenda on the part of the state to “divvy up” the Little Rock School District at the behest of “a few people with money and power.”
After 18 months of school takeover actions, Elliott said she had “lost all my gentleness.”
She said the state Board operated under double standards, taking over Little Rock while, for example, giving a rules waiver to the Little Rock Prep Academy for an expansion. “Why is this OK? Why is it that Little Rock keeps getting beaten down. and this other parallel [charter] school system keeps getting exception after exception?” If there is a plan to divide up the Little Rock School District, the state Board should say so.
She said she asked the department why Little Rock Prep had been favored and told to deny it would have not been keeping with “values” set out by Commissioner Key. “Is there a values statement somewhere? Is it in our values somewhere that we keep undermining the Little Rock School District?”
Elliott said there’d been no community involvement in Key’s choice of Michael Poore to succeed Baker Kurrus as superintendent and that the city had been told different things about reasons for change in the district — alternately fiscal and academic reasons.
Elliott also said she was slow to call things racist, but sometimes the results, even if unintentional, were the same. She saw the parallel system of charter schools developing here ask reminiscent of 1957.
* Sen. Linda Chesterfield was equally fiery in calling for local control and she, too, cited a double standard — Little Rock being taken over while charters continue to fail to meet standards year after a year. “It’s OK to expand them while you diminish us.”
Said Chesterfield: “You have not been fair to us. You have not been representative of us. We want our schools back. This is not the land of charters. It is the land of public education.”
* Jeff Grimmett, a product of Little Rock schools and a teacher at Henderson Middle School, said, “I am the Little Rock School District.” He scored Johnny Key and the state for having “no interest in a diverse and robust education system in Little Rock. Despite numbers that are no better and sometimes worse than public schools, they continue to receive special treatment.”
* Julie Holt: A Little Rock district parent and former Education Department employee said the Board had abdicated its responsibility in the Little Rock takeover and its tenure in charge had been marked by shifting standards.
*Leticia Reta, a Latino mother of a student in Little Rock schools, said “we’re trying to assimilate something that is changing very quickly. … We’re confused. … We, the Hispanics, the Latinos, are not getting the news in our language. … We’re left behind.” She said Latino parents are interested in what’s happening in the district, but “the problem is … how do we know all these changes if nobody is telling us what’s going on?”
Other critics before a lunch break included Antwan Phillips, a lawyer and McClellan High graduate just today appointed to a committee to study school issues in southern Pulaski County; a PTA representative speaking for teachers and others who could not speak; and Ruth Bell, a representative of the League of Women Voters. All were on the side of local control of the schools.
After a lunch break, the pounding of the board continued. A black student from Central High said the board was “on the wrong side of history” and had ignored “students like me.” Through charter school expansion, the student said the Board had “re-entrenched segregation in the district.” Tony Orr, a district parent, said he and others felt held hostage by Johnny Key and the Board. He called Key the “Jim Jones of the Little Rock School District” and residents had been “forced to drink his Kool-Aid.” He said the Board’s agenda “doesn’t include us.” The issue is about money and “somebody else’s agenda.” He said the Board’s posture today showed they could care less about what speakers were saying.
Rabbi Gene Levy, who served on the citizens advisory committee, said “secret actions” of recent months had destroyed the building of trust. He said the board had a “moral obligation” to reveal what the plans are for the district.
Another parent, Brant Collins, said the Board had taken control of the district but wasn’t leading.
Nell Matthews of the League of Woman Voters echoed others who said the state lacked a plan for the district with Kurrus’ departure. “Give us the plan,” she said to Key. It can’t be done secretly. “Give us back our local school board.”
Valerie Bailey, a parent at Fulbright Elementary, said Key didn’t care about Little Rock as evidenced by, among others, the firing of Baker Kurrus. When jobs are cut, residents in the district have no place to go to complain. “We’ve been punked. We’re tired of being punked. We demand answers. We demand you fix this.” She said, too: “We don’t want Michael Poore here. We want Baker Kurrus here.”
Another parent followed, saying the Board was moving Little Rock back to its 1957 image.
Charles Zook, a Little Rock teacher, attacked the Walton family for its desire to do away with teacher unions and decimate the Little Rock School District. He said their education will hollow out schools as Walmart hollowed out the retail sectors of small towns.
Dr. Anika Whitfield, a civic advisory committee meeting, called on Key to step down so he could be replaced by someone who heard all the people in the district. “You have not been honest with us. You have not been fair with us.”
Board Chair Toyce Newton disputed those who suggested the board doesn’t listen. “Our minds are not made up.” To which I say: Words and deeds.
At the end, Board members Jay Barth and Miryea Reith said action was needed on the future course for the district. Good question: Will LR remain in state control as long as even one school is in academic distress. Other school districts with distressed schools have not been taken over.
Key defended the department’s work with the district. But he said progress still needed to be made.
The Board approved Barth’s motion to create a community advisory board and invest it with as broad powers as law allows. He also won approval of a motion for the Board to meet on governance of the district after the next round of standardized testing is available.
PS: As luck had it, my column this week is about how the fix is in on charter schools thanks to the Waltons and their spear carriers like Johnny Key, Asa Hutchinson and a majority of the members of the state Board of Education.