Brian Chilson
SAM LEDBETTER

Sam Ledbetter, who cast the pivotal vote for state takeover of the Little Rock School District in January 2015, writes that state supervision hasn’t worked and that it’s time to return local control to the district as soon as possible.

He suggests the state is not meeting the constitutional mandate for adequate and efficient education in how it’s dealt with Little Rock and other districts. He also says it’s time to stop blaming teachers for student shortcomings rooted in poverty.

Ledbetter, a Little Rock lawyer and former state representative, was board chair when the board voted 5-4 on a state takeover and rejected a compromise plan to address six schools, among 48, judged as failures by state standards. State standards have changed, but eight schools are now judged as failures, based almost entirely on standardized test scores, and others are lagging. The state Board, of which Ledbetter is no longer a member, will meet Thursday and decide whether to proceed with a framework that calls for continued state control of some schools and return of a school board without full powers. Also pending is a proposal to bust the teachers union.

Given Ledbetter’s past pivotal role, his words today are worth reading:

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By Sam Ledbetter

Article 14, §1 of the Arkansas Constitution provides, in part:

Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.

Our Constitution says nothing about assuring a particular educational outcome, assigning A-F letter grades to individual schools and labeling them as failing when they receive an F, taking away local control, or transferring so-called failing schools to private management.

While the Lakeview case equated unequal or inadequate funding with poor academic performance, it addressed adequacy in funding, not specific academic outcomes. So-called “adequacy” funding includes additional “categorical funding” to address the challenges posed by poverty (NSL funding), language barriers (ELL funding), and the lack of alternative programs (ALE funding). Adequacy funding includes additional funding for growing districts and districts with declining enrollment, but not enough for the latter.

This brief history underscores the state’s loss of focus in its treatment of LRSD. Instead of being focused on providing LRSD students a “general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools,” the state’s focus has been on schools it labels as failing. And worse, by labeling these schools as failing, the state justifies actions that directly undermine LRSD’s ability to provide students a “general, suitable and efficient” school system.

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How has it done this? It has ignored the undisputed evidence that the choice/charter/competition model it has embraced has caused LRSD to lose enrollment (and the corresponding funding provided through the Lakeview per pupil funding formula), siphoned off higher performing students, and concentrated children from low income families in LRSD schools while putting LRSD in a fiscally precarious position. It is undisputed that the students the state has concentrated in LRSD cost more to educate. But instead of accepting that this inefficient system is not “suitable,” the state justifies maintaining control over these schools (and perhaps allowing more choice/competition/charters) based on poor academic outcomes (read F letter grades) that are the predictable result of the state’s actions.

So what should the state do at this point? First, it should accept fact. State control has not caused the district to do better. A return of all schools to local control is sought by an overwhelming majority of LRSD residents. Anything other than that is a non-starter.

Second, the state should recognize that, as long as it continues to take steps to undermine the success of LRSD by creating an inefficient system that concentrates poor and marginalized students in the LRSD, it will be violating the Constitution’s requirement that it maintain “a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools” for LRSD (and all) students.

Third, a proven model to improve outcomes is to offer additional services to schools with a higher percentage of students from low income families. Research has shown that the “community school model” that offers wrap around services to not just students but also their families can produce long term, sustainable improvement in achievement.

Finally, stop blaming our teachers. They are doing amazing things in LRSD every day in spite of the state’s having failed this district. Destroying LREA is not an answer to anything. It only creates more disruption when the district needs unity and focus.

This is a pivotal moment. The state has a chance to start a process to help all LRSD schools succeed. It can do this by working with local leaders, including Mayor Scott, to develop a plan to return the entire district to local control as soon as possible. Or it can stick with a model that has been shown to fail our kids. That is the choice facing the state board this Thursday. We are watching.

UPDATE: I’ll add here another voice in support of local control, from Preston Clegg, pastor of Second Baptist Church. He said the state would fail in answering several moral questions if it doesn’t put the people back in charge of the schools.