PROTEST: A Sunday meeting supported teachers against state Education Commissioner Johnny Key's desire to be able to summarily fire teachers at certain schools.

After talks between the Little Rock Education Association and Little Rock School Superintendent Michael Poore yesterday afternoon, Education Commissioner Johnny Key agreed to a two-week extension of the district teachers’ contract, otherwise due to expire Wednesday. I’m pessimistic and wish more attention would be paid to the folly of school grading and how it favors the already favored. Also read on to hear from a teacher at a failing school.

Key has functioned for four years as the district school board in state takeover. He wants a new contract to waive state personnel law covering teachers so that teachers in 22 district schools graded D or F in the state grading system based heavily on test scores may be summarily fired without going through a process to identify ad attempt to correct weaknesses.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports on the development and includes remarks from Gov. Asa Hutchinson defending the waiver.

“Whenever you look at a D or F school, that’s not fair to the children and its not fair to the parents,” Hutchinson said. “We want exceptional schools here in Arkansas and that includes Little Rock. No one should be left behind or left out.”

Hutchinson was not asked how it was fair to apply the waiver only to certain schools in Little Rock, not to mention no other D and F schools in the state.  There are 33 F schools and 170 D schools statewide, but only Little Rock is under the waiver proposal thanks to a state law that currently applies only to Little Rock. The waiver must be approved by the state Board of Education, but that body is controlled by Hutchinson appointees and almost certainly will fall in line. The governor also wasn’t asked why blame seems to focus on teachers and not on the school board (Key); his Education Department; administrators or principals. State control seems to have failed the Little Rock School District.

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Neither Hutchinson nor Key have offered an explanation of why so few efforts have been made to fire teachers the last four years. It IS possible, but no one has yet cited a specific example of a poor teacher whose firing was blocked by the state dismissal law.

The union wanted more than two weeks for negotiation, but Key gave them that much. All proclaim a willingness to work together, but ….

I’ll be surprised if the two weeks produces a compromise. Key and Hutchinson — and the anti-union forces that are driving them — don’t seem inclined to negotiate on waiving the teacher fair dismissal law. It’s a smart employment management policy but requiring a  principal to build a record of employee shortcomings and attempting to correct problems is viewed as a needless bother by authoritarian types and even many more reasonable people.

Key wants to kill the union. An effort to do that by challenging membership numbers failed earlier this year and now he has a likely impasse on a punitive contract change. The union must accept the unacceptable or see an end to its recognition as agent for employees.

Lost in this is the core issue — the difficulty of educating poor children, plus the folly of letter grades as measures of schools and the teachers that work in them. The 22 low-graded schools in Little Rock are overwhelmingly comprised of poor, minority students. These demographic groups are nearly unfailing predictors of achievement gaps nationwide.

Look no farther than the $7 million in state money passed out yesterday to schools with high test scores. These scores would be more useful to the public if they also included the minority and poverty enrollments of each school reaping state cash. It is not surprising when a school with a disproportionately white and middle- to upper-income enrollment like Forest Park Elementary in Little Rock knocks the top off scores and qualifies for a big state bonus.  Other winners in Little Rock likewise enjoy much bigger white and higher income enrollments than the district as a whole and the terrible 22. Many others statewide enjoy the similar advantage of more favorable demographics. The rich get richer, if perhaps not always.

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Let’s find the schools with high poverty and high minority enrollment that made A grades and not only send them cash but send school people from around the state into their classrooms to see what’s going on.

Noted: The Bismarck School District was particularly singled out yesterday for its high scores. It won more than $100,000 in bonuses though 63 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, the only available measure of family income in school districts. 13 of its 990 students, less than 2 percent, are black. 74, less than 8 percent, are Hispanic.

One small example of the difficulty of working in Little Rock’s Terrible 22: About a third of the enrollment at one of them, Hall High School, doesn’t speak English as a native language. Spanish speakers dominate, but seven other students don’t use English as their home language.  If Asa Hutchinson wants to talk about fairness, let’s talk about reducing a school such as Hall to a single letter grade.

Also, I received this letter from Rachel Dunn, teacher at a “failing” school. It’s to Johnny Key:

Today you shattered my trust and the trust of countless teachers in Little Rock. You made me feel marginalized and unimportant. I am a special education teacher in the Little Rock School District. I currently work at a school that is labeled “failing”. I have not always chosen to teach at a school labeled “failing”. I have worked at one of the top performing schools in our state. I have worked in the private, non-profit sector. I have a master’s degree and over twenty years of experience as an educator. I teach in an area of teacher shortage. I am a respected, educated, experienced special education teacher.

I want you to know that at this time in my life, I CHOOSE to work at a “failing” school. I CHOOSE to work where I am most needed. I CHOOSE to devote my time and energy to students who need me the most. I CHOOSE to teach students who struggle with neglect, poverty, abuse, food insecurity, absent and/or incarcerated parents, family drug addiction, and mental health issues.

Today, you sent a clear message that you value me less than other educators who CHOOSE to work at high performing schools. Your actions and words, clearly communicated to me that you believe that teachers who CHOOSE to work at low performing schools are less deserving of due process protections then teachers who CHOOSE to work at high performing schools. You implied that because I CHOOSE to teach at a low performing school that I am a less effective educator.

In response to your words and actions, I CHOOSE to speak up. I CHOOSE to follow the Little Rock School District’s motto to, “dream, disrupt, and deliver”. I will not allow you to marginalize my contribution to the student’s in Little Rock School District, simply because I CHOOSE to teach the student’s who need the most. I will not allow you to imply that I am less important, as an educator, because I CHOOSE to teach at a school, you have labeled failing. I am not failing. My fellow teachers are not failing. We are fighting everyday for our students.

I hope you CHOOSE to read this and allow yourself to see the world from the perspective of ALL student’s in Little Rock School District. I hope that you CHOOSE to support LRSD teachers and students. I hope that you CHOOSE to put people above politics.

Regardless of what you CHOOSE, I will continue to CHOOSE my students. I will continue to CHOOSE to devote my time and energy to the community and the school that needs me the most. I will CHOOSE to fight the good fight….to stand up for the least of us for as long as I can.

Sincerely,

Rachel Dunn, M. ed. Sp. Ed. Ins. Spec

Resource Teacher, Stephens Elementary