Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. has emphasized education as a key component of city success and so I asked him today his thoughts on the state Board of Education framework for future operation of the Little Rock School District.
He resisted specific comment on the elements of the framework approved on a few hours’ notice last week. But he said repeatedly that he favored “complete return of complete local control” of the Little Rock School District.
So does that mean he disfavors the framework, I asked several times? Again, he responded that he favored “complete return of complete local control.” Finally, though, he commented it was “not his idea and not something I would have supported.”
The state Board has adopted an outline that anticipates providing less than full control to a School Board elected in November 2020, with even less control of schools on a sliding scale down to the schools judged failures, where Education Commissioner Johnny Key has said the state would control personnel. That could open the door to private management.
Scott would not comment specifically on the idea of outside control of select schools. He also said in response to a question that he’d had no discussions with the governor about city operation of such schools, an idea that has floated around.
He was reluctant to disclose what had been said in a series of private discussions with Gov. Asa Hutchinson about the schools. He wouldn’t say if the governor had indicated in advance any of the specific steps the state board took last week.
A flashpoint in the state board’s action last week was a surprise motion, delayed until next month, to decertify the Little Rock Education Association as a bargaining agent for Little Rock district teachers.
Does Scott favor or oppose the continuation of a contract agreement with the LREA?
“I cannot speak to something I’m not a party to,” Scott responded.
He said repeatedly, however, that he “cherished” all the children and all the teachers in the district, “union members and non-union members.”
He said the city focus was on meeting shortcomings in serving children from birth to age 5. He said he’s committed to providing city resources and cooperation to help, including with pre-K programs, after school and summer programs and other initiatives to reduce unexcused absences. He endorses the “community school” idea that Sen. Joyce Elliott has advocated.
Scott emphasized that the board action last week was not final and he said he’d continue to advocate local control with the governor.
Meanwhile, he said, he’s worried about potential teacher reaction if the state Board does end union recognition and negative national attention to the city.
“I don’t support mistreatment of any of our teachers,” he said. I asked if he feared teachers might be fired by the state if they mounted a walkout in response to decertification of the union.
He demurred on the specific question, but said the city was taking steps to prepare to “help students.”
“We are well aware if there is a strike we need to take care of our children. We don’t need and don’t want a strike and I am doing everything I can to prevent a strike.”
Scott objected to my observation that he seemed to be avoiding answers to some specific questions. “I’ve answered your questions,” he said. He suggested his approach would keep negotiations going and perhaps produce solutions that eventually could enjoy community-wide support.
State Board action last week and the reaction from many in the School District don’t seem hopeful indicators for an emerging consensus without changes.
Unrelated school news: I’m reliably told that Little Rock schools are receiving near-final standardized test scores that will determine which schools are failing and succeeding under the criteria that will be used to support state takeover decisions. I’m told that there have been heartening numbers in a key indicator — growth in student achievement. This is taken into account in deciding if a school is in academic distress. Some schools might still fall below a passing mark on overall score, but demonstrate that students are advancing and thus not in distress. Early reports, which won’t be final until next month, show advances at several of the so-called failing schools, particularly elementary schools in Southwest Little Rock. These are schools where the state has joined the district in improvement programs and this is the progress that Superintendent Mike Poore cited last week in urging the state Board not to upend the work by turning the schools over to someone else.
At least one school on the list of F schools has broken out of that category, according to preliminary figures.
PS: Mayor Scott told me he was anxious that the city avoid negative national publicity as fallout from the school district controversy. Today, an Associated Press article by Andrew DeMillo, outlining the controversy and the facts of the state’s segregation proposal (whether the governor wishes to call it that or not), is getting wide circulation, including publication on the New York Times’ website.