Brian Chilson
ONE LRSD: Sen. Joyce Elliott, Rep. Tippi McCullough, and five members of the Black Caucus share their ideas for the future of the Little Rock School District.

In a press conference Wednesday morning, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) was joined by five members of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus and Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) to condemn the use of school grades in determining the fate of Arkansas public schools and to call for a fully democratically-elected school board for the Little Rock School District. 

Reps. Jamie Scott, Ken Ferguson, Fred Allen, Vivian Flowers, John Walker and McCullough stood behind Elliott as she told reporters that the “source” of the issues facing Little Rock schools has been the “failure of the legislature to address the Lake View case,” referencing the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that found the state is required to provide an adequate and equitable education. 

“You may punish Little Rock by closing schools, you may punish Little Rock by taking over the district, but five, 10 years from now, what is going to be different if we are not looking at the source from which all of the problems come?” Elliott asked. 

The senator said “every committee” at the capital should be working to address these sources and acknowledge that “a high performing school usually means a high performing neighborhood, and a low performing school usually means a marginalized or struggling neighborhood.” 

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“You can’t just put people behind the eight ball and say, ‘Go do well,’ when we don’t address why they aren’t [doing well],” Elliott said. 

The state Board of Education will meet on Thursday to potentially add details to a framework it has already adopted that establishes three categories of schools. Under the framework, a new, nine-person school board would be elected November 2020. Schools that are rated “F” under the state accountability system would operate under “different” as-yet-unspecified leadership. These are called Category 3 schools in the framework. Other schools, slated to be combined or somehow otherwise be reconfigured, “may” operate under a locally elected board, under the state’s plan. These are described as Category 2 schools. Category 1 schools would include all other schools and would operate under a locally elected board, which under the framework, could have limited authority.

Elliott said this framework is “blatantly racist in effect,” saying that though Governor Hutchinson and board members have said that this is not the case, “you cannot have a framework built on three separate categories of schools and not understand that this is segregation.” 

Elliott then referred to a report released in September by the nonpartisan Bureau of Legislative Research on Arkansas’s education accountability system. Elliott said the report essentially revealed that the criteria used by the state to determine school performance is “junk science.” She also described the effects experienced by a school and its students when it receives an “F” grade. 

“What I think people don’t realize, especially some of my colleagues [who] I’ve tried to make this case with, is what happens to a school when it gets an ‘F’ label on it,” Elliott said. “It means that realtors begin to talk about our neighborhoods as not worthy of living in. It means that when people move to our city, the realtors are careful to tell them not to move into our neighborhoods because we have bad schools — all based on science that is really questionable. It means, most importantly, that this label gets tattooed on the brains of children who go to those schools.” 

“How would you like your child to walk around knowing that people with power, people who could do better, have simply labeled their school an ‘F’ school as if they are they problem?” Elliott continued. “If you think this doesn’t hurt these kids, you have to think about what it would mean to you to wear a scarlet ‘F’ on you every day.” 

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Elliott said she and her peers want a fully democratically elected school board, as they want the “people of Little Rock” to determine “the plan” for the future of the school district, not the state Board of Education. The senator said they also want one LRSD, not one broken up into parts and overseen to varying degrees by the state and the school district, because “what happens here in Little Rock will be a model for what can happen in other places.” Elliott said the district also needs “community schools” with “wraparound services” for students, parents and families in which “everybody has an input” about how they operate, though she said these schools would not be a “long-term solution.” 

The senator said the final demand is a “fully, equitably funded” school district, the most important term being “equitable.” Elliott noted that collective desire for these changes marks a unique moment in the district’s history. 

“This is the first time I have seen, in our district, that across [Interstate 630], we have a unison of support, a unison of commitment for us to build the kind of schools our kids and our school district deserve,” Elliott said. 

Elliott ended her comments by saying she “appreciates” the proposal Mayor Frank Scott Jr. issued for the LRSD on Monday, which calls for a temporary, appointed school board to manage the district from January until a new board is elected in November 2020. Under Scott’s plan, the school board would oversee all schools in the district, including schools with F-grades designated by the state’s framework to be overseen by “different management.” Elliott said Scott’s plan “has a lot of promise in it,” but it may need some tweaking or understanding before she commits to it.