Brian Chilson

Don’t sit this fight out and then live to regret it.

Sixty-two years ago, nine black teenagers changed the course of history. The world was watching in horror as adults hit, kicked, spit on, threatened and cursed at children who were simply trying to get an education. Those shocking images of visceral and uninhibited hate woke up an entire nation. So much has been written about how important it was that the world was watching Little Rock in 1957, and it is absolutely true that the integration crisis at Central High School may have unfolded very differently had no one outside of Little Rock been paying attention, but I am a mother and I often think about the events of September 1957 through a different and much more personal lens.

The world was watching the events unfold in Little Rock in 1957, and so were the children. I look at photographs of adults carrying signs saying “Race Mixing is Un-Christian” and “Keep Our Schools White” and many other hateful phrases that I will not repeat, and I wonder about the children who saw their mommies and daddies making those signs at their kitchen table and saw their parents on the news hurling insults at black teenagers. What were those children learning and how has it shaped them as adults? I also think about the children who watched their parents risk comfort, jobs and social status in order to stand up and do what was right. Black and white children alike watched their parents make choices about how they, as a family, would choose to respond to what was happening, and I think we can all understand how those choices left lasting marks on all involved. Some of those children grew up to be our most courageous advocates for equality, justice and excellent public education for all students, but sometimes, I wonder what other Arkansas officials were learning at home from their parents in 1957 when images of Little Rock Central High School flashed on the nightly news.

To the people of Little Rock and beyond, I say this: Our children are watching us right now. They understand much more than we think, and they will take life lessons from what they see us model in the face of the current crisis. We have the opportunity not just to shape the moral character of our own children, but to change generations to come. The Little Rock Nine got us this far — they brought us to a point where white and black families are now standing shoulder to shoulder fighting for one unified district with excellent education for all students in Little Rock. They brought us this far, and now we have to step out of their shadow and move forward on this journey together. Imagine what Little Rock will be like for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren if we get this right. Imagine what it will be like if we get it wrong.

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On Oct. 10, the Arkansas State Board of Education will meet to discuss it plan to divide the LRSD and to trust only part of our community with the power to use the democratic process to govern their kids’ schools. Under the plan, higher-performing schools, most of which are located in the wealthier, whiter parts of our city, would be returned to limited local control, while schools rated “F” under the state accountability system would not fall under the jurisdiction of a locally-elected school board. Those schools — exclusively located in Little Rock’s poorer communities of color — would be placed under “different” leadership. The State Board’s plan essentially tells many of Little Rock’s residents of color that they don’t deserve to have a voice in the governance of their children’s schools while their more affluent, often whiter neighbors do. Separate school systems were inherently unequal when the United States Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and they are still inherently unequal today.

At the Oct. 10 meeting, the State Board will also take up the motion to decertify the Little Rock Education Association (LREA), which is the teachers’ union that represents more than 70 percent of LRSD teachers and staff. The board initially surprised the public with this motion at the last meeting without putting it on any agenda or providing any notice to the public, but it was forced to delay voting on the motion when parents, elected officials and members of the press expressed frustration and outrage over the lack of public notice and opportunity for community input.

A locally-elected school board should decide the fate of the union. What is the state’s argument against allowing school-board candidates to run on this issue, allowing us to have full public debates on the pros and cons of a strong teachers union, and then letting the people of Little Rock have their say at the ballot box? The only argument against letting a locally-elected school board decide what happens with the union is that the state does not trust us to make the “right” decision. That is what this has always boiled down to — state leaders don’t trust some parts of our community to have any say in the governance of their own kids’ schools, they don’t trust us to decide what happens to the teachers union, and they don’t trust us to manage one of Arkansas’s largest public-school budgets. I will let you reach your own conclusions about why.

Meanwhile, Little Rock residents are ready for local control of our schools. We are more united and more involved in supporting public education than we have ever been. Last year, volunteers logged more than 1 million hours of community service in LRSD schools. Hundreds of people have attended community meetings, State Board meetings, and Community Advisory Board meetings. Many of us have spent our spare time out in our community going door-to-door to talk to our neighbors about what is happening to the school district. At last count, more than 550 people have emailed the State Board in opposition to their plans for our district.

We want local control because it is better for kids. Governments operate best with transparency, accountability and meaningful public participation. Put another way, people in Little Rock need elected school board members who can be held accountable if they don’t serve the best interest of the students. Right now, we have no mechanism to hold state Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts as the LRSD’s school board, or any member of the State Board accountable for failing our kids for the past five years. Parents in this district need to be able to vote board members out of office if they fail to remedy documented violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; fail to ensure that the schools follow state laws regarding literacy instruction, recess or discipline; or fail to fix the problem when school buses routinely arrive late and cause kids to miss important instructional time. The parents and community members who support local control aren’t putting adult concerns ahead of what is best for children, just the opposite. We are demanding that the adults in positions of power be held accountable for how well they educate children. The goal is, has always been, and will continue to be excellent education for all kids.

Now that you know what is going on, we need everyone to join this fight. What would you have done in 1957 when you saw people being treated unfairly? Would you have used your voice, your influence, your energy and your money to fight for equality and excellent education for all? Do that now. This isn’t a morally difficult choice, but it does require you to be bold enough to stand up and speak out. Send our education officials an email telling them to return the entire school district to local control and to trust the people of Little Rock to make decisions that are best for our kids. You can quickly and easily learn more and send those emails using this link: OurLRSD.Org. You can also call Governor Hutchinson’s office at 682-2345. Most importantly, please show up to the next State Board of Education meeting on October 10 starting at 10 a.m. at the Arkansas Department of Education building (LRSD discussions are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m.).

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I will close with a final plea: Those of you who are business leaders, faith leaders and pillars of your communities, both in Little Rock and around the state, we need you more than ever. Stand with us. Your voices could make all the difference, and we need many more of you to speak up.