STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION: Education Secretary Johnny Key and State Board of Education Chairwoman Diane Zook. Brandon Markin

All eyes are on the State Board of Education today as it considers the future of the Little Rock School District and whether to end recognition of the Little Rock teachers union. You can stream the meeting live here.

There are almost endless hanging questions: Will the board move forward with a plan that’s been widely criticized as a move to resegregate the district? Will it give consideration to Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr’s proposal? Will it direct Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts as the school board for the LRSD, to stop recognizing the Little Rock Education Association, the last strong teachers union in the state? If it moves against the union and divides the district under different leadership, will LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore resign as he hinted at last month? Will the State Board insert itself into a desegregation settlement that requires the LRSD to redraw high school attendance zones using a “race-neutral rationale”?

The State Board is expected to fill in details of the framework it approved in September. Under that framework, a new, nine-person school board would be elected in 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 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 the locally elected board, which under the framework, could have limited authority.

Key questions that could be answered within that framework: What does “different leadership” mean? Will the locally elected board’s authority be limited? If so, how? What schools will fall into Categories 2 and 3? And, among the Category 2 schools, which ones will operate under a locally elected board?

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Eight LRSD schools ranked “F” under the state accountability system, which is based largely on the results of one test, which education researchers say highly correlates to poverty. Three are high schools: Hall, J.A. Fair and McClellan. Students at the latter two schools are slated to move into the new Southwest High School next year along with the English language learners who now attend Hall. Those schools would all likely fall into Category 2.

The other “F” schools are Henderson Middle School and four elementary schools: Baseline, Meadowcliff, Washington and Watson.

The students who now attend Henderson are slated in 2020 to merge with those who attend Dodd and Romine in a new K-8 school in what’s now J.A. Fair. So Henderson, too, would likely fall into Category 2.

There are also plans to merge the students who now attend Baseline and Meadowcliff, along with Cloverdale Middle School, into a new K-8 school that will be built in place of a demolished McClellan, but the earliest that school would be ready would be 2022, and it will require new money, either from a millage increase or another second-lien bond issuance. So it’s unclear whether Baseline and Meadowcliff would be considered Category 2.

But, again, it’s hard to know the significance of the different categories since, under the framework, Category 2 schools may not operate under a local school board. Governor Hutchinson has said that he hoped that the Southwest High School would operate under a local board, so you can probably count on that.

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Lindsey Millar
OUTSIDE THE SBE: Anika Whitfield (left) and Laura Danforth.

‘Different leadership’

The proposal that schools made up of mostly black and brown students living in poverty would operate without the same local leadership as the rest of the district has inspired the most community outrage. Because the whiter and wealthier parts of the district would operate under a locally elected board and those in blacker and browner and poorer parts of town wouldn’t, the plan has been likened to resegregation and Governor Hutchinson has been compared to Gov. Orval Faubus, who tried to prevent the desegregation of Central High School 62 years ago. Are the protests and national media coverage getting to Governor Hutchinson? Do he, Key and State Board members care about the optics of the move?

Some of the board members might be especially attuned to those critiques. Fitz Hill and Charisse Dean are both black and live in Little Rock. Dean’s children attend the Little Rock School District. Sarah Moore, who made the motion to adopt the framework and the surprise motion to kill the union, is a Central High graduate. Susan Chambers made an unsuccessful motion at the last meeting to keep the “F” schools under local control, but with continued state support.

Might they be open to considering Mayor Scott’s proposal, which, echoing Chambers’ motion, would keep the state involved in struggling schools that would be transformed into “community schools” with increased city funding and support?

Teachers union

This seems like a done deal.

At the last meeting, after Moore made the surprise motion to end recognition of the Little Rock Education Association, it was seconded by Kathy McFetridge. Chad Pekron said he supported the move, but wanted to table it because of the lack of public notice. Brett Williamson has suggested he holds unions in contempt as has board chair Diane Zook. The votes are there to do the union in.

But the LREA has run a successful campaign to push back against the sneak attack. It says 70 percent of teachers in the district are members, and despite a slanderous narrative often pushed by education reformers that schools are full of deadweight, teachers are widely beloved in the community. Mayor Scott and others have called for any decisions about the union not to be considered until a locally elected board is in place.

Superintendent Poore has defended the union and previously asked the board to back off.

“I’ve always looked at the negotiated agreement as something that benefits both sides,” Poore told me this week. “It benefits us, it benefits them. It creates a standard of expectations of how we work together and the rules that we’re going to play by. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.”

Moore’s motion was to replace the union with a Policy Personnel Committee, made up of elected teachers and administrators, who provide suggestions on policy matters to school boards. In other words, PPCs have far less power than a teachers union. State law says that elections of PPCs should be conducted solely by teachers, but Moore has proposed bringing in an outside consultant to administer elections. The education department is likely to seek a waiver of the law. The contract with the consultant has already been drafted.

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Interim board

There’s been no discussion from the State Board on who would shepherd the district from January 2020 until after November elections. Mayor Scott proposed an appointed board, selected by city and state officials. Zook and Williamson said in response that the Community Advisory Board should serve as the temporary board. That board was nominated by members of Little Rock area legislative caucus and approved by Johnny Key, but as Sen. Joyce Elliott has pointed out, all the current CAB members were nominated by Republican legislators. Chairman Jeff Wood and board member Melanie Fox (a previous LRSD School Board member) have often demonstrated that they’re aligned with so-called education reformers and have supported the state’s agenda in the district, so LRSD advocates fear any scenario where the CAB has more power during a consequential period for the district.

High school attendance zones

The addition of a settlement agreement to a desegregation lawsuit to today’s State Board agenda has many on edge. The agreement requires the LRSD to redraw high school attendance zones using a “race-neutral rationale” no later than 2020. This will be a mess no matter how it’s done, but LRSD watchers agree that State Board meddling could make a fraught situation worse. At a working meeting in September, none of the board members could define what “race-neutral” meant and Secretary Key seemed to direct them and department officials from wading into it.

The district will have four high schools in 2020. The tension is likely to be concentrated in how to handle attendance zones for Hall High School, which is moving toward a STEM magnet model like Forest Heights K-8, and Central High School, long the jewel of the district, but one with an attendance zone that critics have called gerrymandered to pull white kids into it. Central is also a magnet school. Parkview has been entirely a magnet school.