Despite an outpouring of opposition from Little Rock people, a Senate committee today endorsed SB 668 (number given incorrectly originally) that would allow the state to extend state control over the Little Rock School District for four more years.
A representative of Mayor Frank Scott Jr. appeared to oppose the legislation by Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), along with parents, child advocates and a teachers organization speaker who gave committee solid evidence that Little Rock is on a path to state takeover while hundreds of other schools in the same circumstance avoid a similar fate.
The bill was approved on a voice vote after failing on a roll call earlier in the week. Proponents of the takeover bill apparently brought around some members who’d failed to vote for it earlier.
Sen. Joyce Elliott remonstrated Hammer for putting the bill forward without talking to senators from Little Rock who’d long been advocates for the district.
“I’m confused about the genesis of this whole thing and how so many times people who are most affected have things happen to them rather than with them. I couldn’t imagine doing something that affected Benton and Bryant, especially something of this significance, without having more conversations with people of those districts and certainly their state senator. would that be asking too much?”
The bill applies to all districts in academic distress, but it was clear from the morning discussion that was written about Little Rock.
Hammer, whose district includes a tiny part of the school district, insisted the idea was his own, arising from sitting on an audit committee that saw districts with recurring problems (the audit committee doesn’t review academic distress, another speaker noted). He presented his bill benignly as a way to help districts that might be close to exiting state control but need a little more time. A “soft landing,” he called the provision that allows two 24-month extensions of state control. Elliott noted that Jeff Wood, appointed to the Little Rock District Community Advisory Board by Education Commissioner Johnny Key, had supported the bill and indicated he’d helped shape it.
Teresa Knapp Gordon, head of the Little Rock Education Association, said the bill was a “kick in the gut” to people who worked in the district. She noted that the district is going to be judged on results of the ACT Aspire test being given this week and that Arkansas is the only state that still uses that test as a standard. It is the third performance test applied in the district since state takeover in January 2015.
Gordon made a key point: To be released from state control, the “failing” LRSD schools must achieve an 80 on a grading school based on progress and other factors. Of the 48 charter schools in the state, 30 didn’t achieve an 80 last year. Of the 1,061 public schools, 467 scored below 80, Gordon said. “None of them are being taken over.”
She said the federal law that prompted a change in school standards in Arkansas was supposed to be about support for districts, “not punishment. Takeovers are punishment.”
Gordon and others said Jeff Wood didn’t speak for the majority of the district in supporting the extended takeover. Charles McAdoo, a former School Board member, suggested race and the fact that a majority black school board in control of a $300 million budget was a reason for attacks on the district.
Several people, including Senator Elliott, made reference to rumors that an effort is afoot to create a West Little Rock school district (the area Jeff Wood represents) that would include the relatively new Roberts Elementary, the new Pinnacle View middle school, a high school now in creation with addition of a ninth grade at Pinnacle and perhaps the nearby Robinson High School in the Pulaski County School District. Johnny Key acknowledged some informal conversations had been held, but said nothing official could be done about boundaries until the Pulaski district desegregation case was completed.
Ginny Blankenship of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and a district parent said she hadn’t had a school board since her son entered pre-K in 2015. “Most teachers and parents feel helpless and heartbroken,” she said. They are tired of “games being played” and tired at the lack of progress. She also said parents were “blindsided” by Wood’s decision to speak for continued state control, a position she said didn’t reflect the majority of the district.
The failure of the state to produce results was mentioned again and again, along with the state Board of Education’s failure, despite repeated requests, to produce a legally required exit plan for the district from state control.
A single person spoke for state control: Elizabeth Huggins, who’s been a critic of the district’s effort to help dyslexic students. She said the state Education Department hadn’t been particularly effective either. But she said she feared if the district left
Bill Kopsy of the Citizens First Congress and a district parent said the state needs to take a new approach to
“What we’re doing is not working,” he said. “Doubling down simply prolongs the failures of what we’re currently doing. “
Little Rock lawyer Antwan Phillips, who’s worked on school advisory panels, echoed that criticism. He cited the absence of an exit plan. “Why would we logically think after five years, one 24-month or a second one would make any difference?” He said he doesn’t trust there will ever be a plan.
“Our country is frounded on democracy. And every day there’s not local control of the school district we are violating the democratic principles of this country with no evidence to show it’s working.”
Emily Jordan Cox, a lobbyist for the city of Little Rock, spoke for Mayor Frank Scott Jr. He’s made it clear, she said, that local control of the district should have been returned “yesterday.” She said he’d spoken repeatedly with Superintendent Mike Poore, Gov. Asa Hutchinson
It was all for naught. The bill still must pass the Senate and then the House, with time running short.
The growing talk of splitting majority white West Little Rock from the district and the likelihood of Little Rock schools falling below the required score to be considered out of academic distress are two key factors in a growing belief that there IS a plan for the Little Rock district after the five years are up. But what is it?
Key mentioned a partial return of control.
My prediction is that the future of LRSD — at least as envisioned by the Hutchinson administration and the Republican legislature and the private interests that have backed charter, voucher and other “choice” initiatives — does not include a return to a conventional school district led by a fully empowered locally elected board that’s representative of the students in the district. I hope I’m wrong.
Approval of Hammer’s bill this morning absent any coherent argument for it is not a good sign.