Brian Chilson

Governor Hutchinson called the state’s continued involvement in the Little Rock School District a “constitutional and moral responsibility,” sharply objected to claims that the State Board of Education’s plans for the district amount to resegregation and refused to take a position on a move to oust the Little Rock Education Association from the LRSD in a meeting with the press in his office Monday.

On Friday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to approve a framework for the future of the LRSD. The board dissolved the LRSD’s locally elected school board and took control of the district in 2015 because of low test scores at a handful of schools. The framework establishes three categories of schools: Category 1, which includes all schools that score “D” or higher; Category 2, which includes all schools “undergoing reconfigurations”; Category 3, which includes all schools with a 2019 accountability grade of “F.” A nine-member school board will be elected November 2020. Under the framework, it would oversee Category 1 schools. Category 2 schools would likely include the new Southwest High School scheduled to open in 2020 and other schools south of Interstate 630 that are scheduled to be reconfigured as part of the LRSD’s Community Blueprint. The framework says those schools “may operate” under the new school board. Category 3 schools would operate “under different leadership,” which may education observers believe will be a private charter management company.

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Citing the the Arkansas Constitution and the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling in the Lake View case that found that the state is required to provide an equitable education for all public school students, Hutchinson said if the state returned LRSD schools to local control that continue to receive an “F” grade under the state accountability framework, then “we would surely have dedicated civil rights lawyers that would immediately be filing a lawsuit saying we are not meeting our obligations under the Lake View decision.”

The latest accountability scores are due in October. In 2018, there were 44 schools across the state that scored an “F.” Most of those schools continue to be represented by a locally elected school board. If Lake View prevents the state from returning schools with “failing” grades to local control, doesn’t that mean that the state should take control of “F” schools in every district across the state? I asked.

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“It means the state has a responsibility and has to determine the right approach,” Hutchinson said. “There’s not anything different in terms of the state’s responsibility in the LRSD as there is in every other school district in the state of Arkansas.”

Scott Green of Central Arkansas Press identified himself as the nephew of Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine. He noted something that we have previously pointed out: that nearly everywhere there are high concentrations of poor black children, those schools have low test scores — which significantly figure into accountability grades.

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“I have high expectations for those students and high praise for the teachers who devote themselves to it,” Hutchinson said. “I believe they can succeed. The state wants to be able to make sure that we provide the support that is required.”

All of the schools expected to receive an “F” grade and nearly all of the schools slated to be reconfigured are south of I-630. Under the framework, that would leave the newly elected school board in control of schools in the whiter areas of town and not in the areas with higher black and brown populations — especially if those schools set for reconfiguration aren’t put under local control. That’s led many to criticize the plan as promoting resegregation and separate but equal treatment of LRSD schools.

“I absolutely reject the proposition that this is a resegregation of the Little Rock School District,” Hutchinson said when asked of that criticism. “That is wrong. It is not based in fact. It is merely trying to resurrect an old history that has no application. The State Board of Education adopted a framework for a policy. It was not based upon geography; it was based on what is necessary under our constitutional responsibility for what is best students.”

Hutchinson did say that he hoped the new Southwest High School, which will combine J.A. Fair and McLellan high schools, would be included under the authority of a local school board. Both schools have received “F” grades, and the Southwest High School would likely be included under Category 2.

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Hutchinson declined to say whether he supported State Board member Sarah Moore’s motion to direct Education Secretary Johnny Key to stop recognizing the Little Rock Education Association as the exclusive bargaining agent for the district. Moore is a former Hutchinson staffer. Hutchinson undoubtedly supports the proposal and supported the push to strip Little Rock teachers of their employment protections last year.

“What teachers and staff desire is some influence over personnel policies,” Hutchinson said. “I believe the Personnel Policy Committee does provide that. Obviously, a union can also provide that influence. But it is a negotiated contract, so it’s different. You have to look at what’s best for the future of the Little Rock School District and their students and to improve education here.”

How would the governor rate the state’s oversight of the district over the last five years?

“I think we can all look back on the last five years and say maybe there are some things we could have done more aggressively, and maybe there are some things we could have changed, but you’ve had people working very hard,” he said. “The greatest praise needs to go to the teachers that have devoted themselves in the classroom.

“I think you have to look at the future at this point. The future is that we can do this better together and have better results for the students vs. dividing and saying what’s the state responsibility, this is local control. Let’s work together to have a better outcome for students. Let’s learn from the past and apply that to the future to have better results.”

In response to a similar question, he said, “The important thing is that we have made progress in the Little Rock School District, both in terms of facilities and finances, and you can see, whether it’s in reading or dyslexia programs have improved, but there’s so much more to do. I think the debate has to be how do you improve? I think the debate should be more broadly defined as how can we have the maximum amount of local support with continued state support for the Little Rock School District. I think the framework from the State Board of Education really redefines the debate to say. This is a way we can continue state support, have a popularly elected school board that can have influence and control over a significant amount, but we’re not going to abandon a state perspective.”