I applaud Mayor Frank Scott Jr. for proposing a plan for the Little Rock School District, but I need a lot more information before I can judge whether this would be a good plan for Little Rock.
First, let me say that I genuinely and deeply respect anyone who is willing to step up and propose solutions while others choose to play it safe by quietly watching from the sidelines. Full stop. I have questions and concerns about the city’s plan, but those are not criticisms of Scott, who has now done exactly what so many of us have been asking all of our community leaders to do: get involved in the fight to save the LRSD and advocate loudly for return of the full district to local control. Mayor Scott did that yesterday, and as a parent in this district I am thankful for his willingness to insist that local control must include all of our schools. Scott campaigned on building unity in our city, and I appreciate him for championing unity for our school district.
That said, the idea of an appointed board, even a temporary one, makes me nervous. When you add in the fact that we don’t yet know how many members would be appointed by the state, I see real potential for problems. Some of my concern was alleviated by Scott’s statements that the appointed board should avoid deciding anything “consequential,” which I took to mean anything that could wait for an elected board to decide.
My concern, though, is that an appointed board, with some or most members appointed by Governor Hutchinson or Education Secretary Johnny Key, might not heed Scott’s advice. In fact, the appointed board would have to decide whether it negotiates with the Little Rock Education Association, for example. While an interim board that is closer to the community is a good idea, those benefits will be lost if it is made up of state appointees who would continue to carry out the state’s current agenda while conveniently shielding Hutchinson, Key and the State Board members from the political repercussions of those decisions.
I understand the argument that this is better than allowing the State Board to continue making decisions during the interim period until an elected school board is in place. Maybe so, but it’s impossible to say whether this plan is good for Little Rock without knowing the details on the proposed appointed board’s makeup and whether there will be enforceable limitations on the appointed board. The bottom line: The devil is in the details, and we all need to keep paying attention.
My second concern is about community input. Community schools are a FANTASTIC idea, but they cannot work unless they are created in true partnership with the community they serve. Every community has different needs, and no two community schools look just alike, so I am very much watching for this plan to include serious and meaningful community involvement in shaping those schools. As a broader matter, rebuilding public trust in the process by which education decisions are made is going to be essential for any plan to be successful. It is no secret that some of the criticism of Scott’s proposal has come from parents, teachers and activists who, yet again, have felt excluded from discussions about what should happen to their kids and their schools. I hope that Scott and the City Board have already created, as a part of this proposal, an aggressive plan to solicit community input and engage with educators, parents, stakeholders, business leaders, faith leaders and everyone else who cares about what happens to our school district. If not, I worry that the city’s proposal will suffer from the same lack of public input and public trust that has plagued State Board decisions about our school district.
My final concern is the continued reliance on state-assigned school letter grades. To be clear, this plan is BETTER than the state framework because it puts all the schools under local control, but it still specifies that the “F” schools will be governed in partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education based on a memorandum of understanding and that the “F” schools, specifically, would become community schools. As Lindsey Millar has thoroughly discussed here, those letter grades are not an accurate way to define a student, a family or a school.
We also need to know what the “partnership” between the district and the state would look like. In an AP story reporting on Scott’s proposal, State Board of Education Chair Diane Zook is quoted as saying, “We’re calling for a partnership and how his would differ from that, I don’t really know.” That makes two of us, because I also would like to know a lot more about how Scott’s proposed partnership would differ from the current State Board framework, which would place the “F” schools under “different leadership” but “in partnership with” the district. Under both plans, the public needs clear answers regarding who would have final decision-making authority over things like hiring and firing in those schools. “Partnership” and “support” are often used as euphemisms for control, so again, we simply need to know more about how this partnership would actually function.
One basic logistical problem with both this proposal and the state’s current framework is that the list of “F” schools changes from year to year. I commend the city’s commitment to establishing and helping fund community schools with much-needed wraparound services, but I sincerely hope that continued funding for those services won’t be dependent on the schools retaining that “F” grade.
Let me be clear: This plan seems better than the state board’s current proposal. Even with the questions and concerns outlined above, this proposal appears preferable to the state’s plan. However, “better than resegregation” is a very low bar to meet. The State Board’s framework is so shockingly bad it has mobilized our entire community and many people around the state and even the nation to strongly oppose it. My great fear is that this plan could potentially allow a state-appointed board to accomplish some of the very same things that the State Board of Education is attempting to do, but could do so quietly and with the veneer of “local control,” making it much harder for the LRSD community to organize against such plans.
In the end, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the only question that really matters is “what will be best for kids?” I think community schools are a great idea — if built in conjunction with and by really listening to the community. I think having an interim board that is closer to the community could be a step in the right direction — but I also worry that an appointed board doesn’t provide any sort of democratic accountability, which is critical for improving education outcomes for kids.
I am thankful to Mayor Scott for being willing to stick his neck out and suggest an alternative to the State Board’s current framework. I will never throw stones at someone who is making a good-faith effort to help, which is what I think Mayor Scott is doing here. But I think we owe it to current and future LRSD students to be diligent, to ask some really hard questions, and to think these things through very carefully. We also need every parent, every business leader, every teacher and every elected official to keep offering suggestions, keep asking tough questions, keep paying attention, and keep fighting for not just the best-that-we-can-get solution but the best solution, period. Our kids deserve it.