Jay Barth completed his tenure on the state Board of Education last week with a call to the board to get moving on the Little Rock School District.
As the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported today — and you can watch the meeting on video, the relevant part in the last 10 minutes or so — Barth urged the board to be “pro-active” in coming up with a transition plan for the district, currently completing its fifth year in state control. It should be thoughtful. The Board should not, he said, simply react to a plan presented by the Education Department.
No kidding. By any measure, the Education Department has failed in its trusteeship of the district, taken over in January 2015 in a narrow split vote because of low test scores in six of four dozen schools. Assessment standards have changed, but several schools in the district still fall short, with three high schools viewed as unlikely to be judged as having passing scores when the statutory five-year takeover period ends.
It’s past time to return Little Rock schools to local control. Though it might be too late. The Walton-, Hutchinson administration- and Education Commissioner Johnny Key-backed push for more charter schools and more school vouchers seems likely to further cripple or even kill the district in any case, both financially and in siphoning off families better positioned to succeed in school.
Thanks to a change of legal opinion at the Education Department, there will be no election for a school board this year. That means there can’t be one until November 2020, almost six years after the elected Little Rock board was booted (the city business establishment hated the majority-black board) and Johnny Key was put in charge.
I’ve recently learned that talks are underway behind the scenes. The state WANTS to wash its hands of the Little Rock school problem, even if that means restoring some form of democracy. You can see why. They get the blame for a problem that is rooted — not in “failing schools” or failing union teachers — in a failing society. In Little Rock, there’s a concentration of poor children with all the educational difficulties poverty entails. That they are disproportionately poor and black has served as a disincentive to middle-class families to participate, a vital element in “success” and “failure” of public schools. Yes, all children can learn. But it is devilishly hard when they arrive at school so far behind.
But this is today’s FYI: The Hutchinson administration is apparently in talks about a transfer of oversight of the Little Rock School District to the city of Little Rock. Yes, I said the city of Little Rock. Would this require legislation? There’s some thought maybe not because of the broad power given the state Board of Education to consolidate or “reconstitute” a so-called failing school district. A pathway to board elections would be envisioned.
What would the financially foundering city of Little Rock bring to the table? Good question. First, though, it would offload the state’s responsibility on the surface and that would make Key and Hutchinson happy. The state, by Constitution, ultimately still has responsibility for all public schools. And in this scenario, it would likely continue to retain oversight of specific schools in need of help. With the clarity of hindsight, we know this is what should have been done in 2015 — a takeover of six schools, not the entire district.
There are some structural issues. City government represents a city in which a significant chunk of territory in the higher income reaches of western Little Rock is NOT within the Little Rock School District. Giving elected representatives with little or no constituency in the school district any sort of control over my district gives me some pause. (Looking at you, Lance Hines.)
Talks continue, too, about boundary changes: a combined district south of the river, for example. But that’s complicated by the fact that the Pulaski County School District, which serves the western part of the city, remains under federal court supervision.
Barth, a Hendrix College professor and contributor to the Arkansas Times, was right when he said Thursday:
“My plea would be to the board — we are now seven months away from the five-year mark — I would really ask the board to prepare a thoughtful contingency plan so at the end of the day the board doesn’t simply react to something that is brought to them by the department, but takes real ownership of this decision, about how we move forward in a way that is best for the community, best for the district, best for the kids.”
He served a valuable seven-year stint on the board. The governor hasn’t yet announced his replacement. I hope it’s not another pick from the Walton charter school lobby. Diane Zook’s rise to succeed Barth as Board chairman is not great news given her long antagonism toward the Little Rock School District. But her individual Little Rock takeover plan was soundly rebuffed by the Board earlier this year, a sign that she might have trouble forming a board governing consensus.
Meanwhile, keep a lookout for the entry of Little Rock government into the picture.