I’m a proud graduate of the Little Rock School District.
I went on to graduate from college and law school and I have a career today as an attorney in Little Rock. But I can honestly say that the most academically challenging, enriching and rewarding years of my entire education were my years as a student at Dunbar Junior High and Central High School in the Little Rock School District. When I was a student in the LRSD, the district was controlled by a democratically-elected school board accountable to the citizens of the district.
But the top-notch academic education was not the most important part of my experience as a student in the LRSD. The most valuable thing about my education in the LRSD was the diversity of life experience that surrounded me during my time as a student in the district. The opportunity to know people of all socio-demographic backgrounds, to have peers and teachers and friends with wide-ranging racial, religious, political, cultural and economic backgrounds — that experience was simply priceless. The perspective that I gained, the ability to begin to understand the worldviews of people with completely different life experiences — that is what I most cherish about my time as an LRSD student.
Today, I have two children enrolled in the Little Rock School District. We are an upper middle-class family, white, abundantly privileged, able to self-select our schools by choosing where to live. I want my children to develop perspective, to become students and ultimately guardians of humanity, by being immersed in the diversity of the LRSD. Of course, I also want my children to get an outstanding academic education. Only the LRSD can deliver both for my children, and all children, in the district.
Many of us fear that the state’s takeover of the Little Rock School District is driven by a nefarious motive. We hope we are wrong. But there is increasing evidence that the state used the academic distress of six schools (out of 48) as a pretext to seize control of the state’s largest school district from the people of that district, in order to implement policies that will divide the district along demographic and geographic lines — policies that are not in the best interests of the majority of students served by this district. We are concerned that the goal of this takeover is not to improve the academic performance of underperforming schools, but to “reconstitute” the district, to “charterize” the district, to fundamentally change this school district in ways that might benefit the privileged few, but will harm the underprivileged many. If that is indeed what is happening, then we should call it what it is: re-segregation. And we strenuously object.
Regardless of the true motivation behind the takeover, enough time has now passed that it is clear that the state takeover has failed the Little Rock School District. We’ve seen no measurable benefit from the takeover — academic or otherwise — in fact, the state’s own measures show more schools in “academic distress” now than when the takeover began in January 2015. And the takeover has created a false perception of dysfunction in this school district that is doing great harm to the reputation of the district, and driving students and teachers away from the district. It is time to restore local control to the Little Rock School District.
I believe the greatest asset of the Little Rock School District — its socio-demographic diversity — benefits students of underprivileged backgrounds just like it benefits students of privileged backgrounds (like me and my children). I have a little brother through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program who is also a proud graduate of the LRSD. My little brother does not enjoy the economic and demographic privileges that I’ve enjoyed since birth. My little brother’s mother couldn’t send him to private school if she wanted to, and she couldn’t choose her housing based on school zoning to ensure that her kids were assigned to the schools of her choice. My little brother graduated from Dunbar Middle School and Central High School. When my little brother graduated from the LRSD in 2012, the district was controlled by a democratically-elected school board accountable to the citizens of the district.
My little brother learned — from having friends with diverse backgrounds in the Little Rock School District, and from being part of my very different family in addition to his own — that his life path was not predetermined, that success was not completely unavailable to him even though the deck was unfairly stacked against him. My little brother went on to graduate from UAPB and now has a management career with Union Pacific railroad. He is a 25-year-old African-American college graduate, managing a railroad crew in rural white America. He is successful and comfortable in that position because the LRSD prepared him for that. I couldn’t be prouder of him. And I am utterly unsurprised by his success. My little brother was and is exactly the kind of student who would be harmed by annexation, consolidation, reconstitution, charterization — by re-segregation, of the LRSD. He and his siblings and cousins are exactly the kind of students who are harmed by this state takeover. And yet, he and his family are what make the LRSD great, for all of us. If we harm them, if we leave them behind, if we sweep them under the rug, then we harm all of the students and teachers and parents of the LRSD. We should be working for these students and families, not against them.
The state takeover of the Little Rock School District has had one remarkable (and unintended) benefit: It has united the people of Little Rock in support of their school district. More than ever, we are invested in the LRSD — our school district — including all of the schools, and all of the students of the district. We are ready to bring problems and solutions to locally-elected leaders, and hold those local leaders accountable. We will govern together, and we will succeed together. We should thank the state for awakening the fire and passion and unity of purpose that we now share in Little Rock. And the state should abandon its failed experiment, and allow us the fundamental freedom to govern our schools and educate our children. It is time to end the state takeover. It is time to restore local control to the Little Rock School District.