Ali Brady Noland, an Little Rock School District parent and leading advocate for the district, wrote this open letter to Governor Hutchinson, Education Commission Johnny Key and the State Board of Education in advance of a decision on the fate of the LRSD.
We, the parents, grandparents, and caregivers of current and future students in the Little Rock School District, urge you to return the LRSD to local control to be governed by an elected school board. Because our children have the most at stake in the decisions you will soon make about the future of the LRSD, we hope that you will give our input serious weight and consideration.
Here are the reasons we believe that the return of the district to local control would best serve all children in Little Rock:
- We do not want “separate but equal” schools. Division of the LRSD would be unacceptable to us. We have chosen LRSD because of, not in spite of, its rich diversity. We believe that the life lessons our children learn as part of a diverse district with a complex and difficult history are as important as the academic subjects on which they are so rigorously tested. Yes, governing a large district that encompasses wide socioeconomic, racial and structural inequality will be difficult, but we believe in teaching our children how to address these problems head-on rather than try to hide that inequality by carving up the district into more homogenous zones. We want our children to learn about unity, community-building, and the difficult process of working through challenges with their neighbors rather than learning to separate and divide themselves from their neighbors. These principles are deeply important to us and are not up for debate.
- We demand meaningful accountability. One of the core values listed prominently in Education Commissioner Johnny Key’s “Vision for Excellence in Education” is “[p]rotecting the public trust by ensuring quality and accountability.” Yet, after almost five years into the state takeover of the LRSD, there is no real dispute that the state’s leadership has failed to improve public education outcomes in Little Rock. If the state of Arkansas believes in true accountability, it must address the fact that state control has not benefited our children. We believe that true accountability can only be achieved through a locally-elected school board because only then will families personally impacted by education-policy decisions be able to remove policymakers who do not serve the best interests of our children. We do not believe that accountability means blaming teachers for failing to solve socioeconomic and racial inequality that falls far outside their control. Instead, we believe accountability means holding policy-makers responsible when they refuse to allocate sufficient tools and resources to meaningfully address that inequality.
- We insist that the state Department of Education act in accordance with its stated values. Commissioner Key’s vision statement also says that he believes in “[c]ollaborating with others through mutual respect, trust, and professionalism,” and “communicating in an open, honest, and transparent manner.” For many parents in Little Rock, these statements seem hollow. For years, Little Rock education advocates and elected officials have all urged the State Board to address the difficult problem of educational inequality by rebuilding community schools, increasing wraparound services, expanding quality early-childhood programs, and empowering excellent educators. Instead, the Board has actively limited opportunities for public input, refused to answer questions from the community, and repeatedly taken actions that were overwhelmingly opposed by the people of Little Rock. We urge the state of Arkansas to address this now by listening to the people of Little Rock as we clearly and unanimously demand the return of our district.
- We are capable of self-governance. The state takeover of the LRSD is premised on the belief that the democratic process was not working to ensure quality education for all students in Little Rock. While reasonable people may disagree on whether that conclusion was accurate when the state took over our schools almost five years ago, it certainly is not accurate now. The people of Little Rock are ready, willing and able to manage our own school district through democratic elections. The state has presented no evidence of voter fraud, electioneering, voter apathy or any other impediments that would make our community less capable of self-governance than any other school district in the state. Moreover, the state cannot in good faith argue that that the democratic process will not work to ensure quality education in Little Rock since it has not, in five years, made any efforts to address such issues and strengthen our ability to use local elections to manage our district.
- We believe in evidence-based approaches. Again, we turn to Commissioner Key’s “Vision for Excellence in Education,” which suggests “[d]riving action toward excellence through informed risk-taking.” We agree with this approach, even as we question Commissioner Key’s true commitment to it. Informed risk-taking requires careful consideration of all relevant data and a willingness to take bold action. We firmly believe that implementing evidence-based approaches to public-education are the best way to achieve meaningful improvements. Evidence demonstrates that increased financial and strategic support, wraparound services, community engagement, and an emphasis on cultural humility are more effective approaches than privatization, charterization and punitive action.
- We want decision-makers who will put our children first. From debates over guns in the classroom to disputes over charter schools and collective bargaining for teachers, we are tired of state-level officials playing politics with our kids’ educations. Local control is a bedrock of American education because we recognize that representative democracy works best on a small scale, but right now, Little Rock parents are unable to compete with well-funded special interests who have an outsized influence on decision-making about our schools.
- We reject the validity of the state’s exit criteria as a tool to determine our readiness to lead. The state failed to provide any meaningful path toward regaining control of our school district for more than four years. Then in February, it set its “exit criteria,” which it claims will determine whether the people of Little Rock can successfully manage our own school district. The exit criteria attempt to measure how our schools are currently performing (and they are an imperfect measure, to say the least). Since the people of Little Rock have had no say in decisions about our schools for almost five years, it makes no sense to judge us by their current success or failure. The exit criteria are only helpful in assessing how poorly the state has managed our district, not our ability and readiness to take on that task.
- We are unified. If there is a silver lining of the state takeover of the LRSD, it is that it has unified the people of Little Rock in an effort to regain control of our district. We are more motivated and willing than ever to work past our differences and cooperate with each other to build a world-class school system for all children in our community. We are now more aware of the inequality that persists in our neighborhoods and our schools, and that awareness will allow us to focus our resources on the areas with the greatest needs once we regain control of our district’s budget.
For these reasons and many others, we appeal to you, Governor Hutchinson, Commissioner Key, and the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education, to return our school district to local control. Someone must make decisions about our children’s schools, and we think it should be us. We are as smart, as engaged, and as capable of governing our own school district as Arkansans in any other part of the state. If you do not trust us to make reasonable judgments related to our own children, you cannot continue to espouse values of small government, local control and personal responsibility