In the process of advocating for local control of the Little Rock School District, I have come to realize that it is impossible to put yourself out there (i.e., use your voice to publicly advocate for issues you care about) without drawing some criticism. That’s normal. What isn’t normal, and what we shouldn’t accept, is when that criticism isn’t aimed at the substance of our ideas but is instead an attack on our validity as advocates. Unfortunately, I’ve seen more and more such attacks lately in the fight over the future of the LRSD, so I want to take a second to address them.
One thing I often hear is “You just don’t understand.” This is almost always paired with some version of “the Little Rock School District has always been a mess and will always be a mess.” The idea is that public education in Little Rock is hopelessly broken and that advocates for local control of the district either don’t get it or are willfully ignoring intractable problems. To the extent that these critics want to argue that building a world-class education system for all Little Rock students is impossible or unrealistic, I simply disagree. A lot of us do because we believe in the potential of our teachers and students. Just like any huge problem (gun violence, health-care costs, climate change), there isn’t one quick fix that will solve everything, but there are a whole lot of changes, both big and small, that could help improve education outcomes for all kids. Saying “It will always be a mess” is just another way of saying “I’m not willing to do the work required to make things better.” And to the extent that the criticism is that advocates “just don’t get it,” this can only be addressed if the person making such a critique is willing to put forth facts and information that they believe the advocate is missing and then further engage in discussion about the merits of those issues. Usually, that doesn’t happen, and “you just don’t understand” is a way to shut down the conversation.
I also hear, “Why aren’t you talking about _____ (fill in any other issue here)?” Other advocates, who have done amazing work on issues like bullying, literacy, disability-rights, racial equity and hunger relief often view the current controversy through the lens of their own advocacy work and the issues they care deeply about. That’s normal, and it can be helpful if it results in more people coming to the table with a deeper and more diverse understanding of the issues we are facing. What isn’t helpful is when advocates on one issue tear down advocates who are focusing on a different issue simply because they think their own cause is more important. The truth is that none of us can be all things to all people at all times. Some people will focus on some issues, for example, suicide prevention or homelessness, based on life experiences that have made those issues near and dear to their hearts. Others will approach a problem like the current debate over the future of the LRSD based on their career and educational background. For example, I’m an attorney with a master of laws degree in constitutional and civil rights law. I have a lot of experience working in law, government and politics. So I immediately viewed this issue through the lens of democracy, transparent governing practices and fair procedures. Others, educators, for example, may view the entire issue differently, focusing on reading scores or class size. All of these perspectives are valid, and it is supremely unhelpful to expect everyone to approach a problem in exactly the same way. We need more ideas and suggestions, not simply a few loud voices yelling at anyone who suggests anything different.
Perhaps the most common form of criticism that I have seen is “Where were you five years ago?” This argument assumes that anyone interested in what is happening today in the LRSD — be it a parent, student, teacher, or community advocate — lacks credibility if they weren’t outspoken before and during the state’s takeover of the district in 2015. This form of reasoning has been described as a form of the “Nirvana Fallacy,” also known as “don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” meaning that while it would be ideal for more people to have been deeply involved and engaged years or even decades ago, it is still very good for people to become deeply engaged now. Everyone starts somewhere, and even the most strident advocates on issues like literacy, gun safety or climate change can point to a moment when they became really invested in that cause. On LRSD issues and every other topic, it is counterproductive to shame advocates for being “late to the game.”
I became more interested in education issues after having my own children, who are now 6 and 4 years old. Other people may have gotten more involved after their neighborhood elementary school was closed or their child’s teacher confided that she felt demoralized or scapegoated by the State Board. There is no wrong way to become more civic-minded, and there is no trophy simply for having been involved in an issue before other people joined the cause. So, to everyone who is reading this and is worried about speaking out in support of LRSD because you weren’t more involved in the past, I say this: Welcome, we need you, and we are so grateful for your interest in these issues!
A final line of attack and one which to which I am personally sensitive is, “You’re just trying to get your name in the paper.” This attack assumes that the advocate’s work is motivated by a desire for attention and self-promotion. I’ve heard this one personally, and it hurts. It’s also untrue for almost everyone I know who has been fighting for local control of the LRSD. The truth is that the only real tool that the LRSD community has in our fight for local control is putting public pressure on the state, and any and all media attention that we can get for our issues helps us recruit more people to become involved. These are also very complex and confusing issues, and we have found that the state is, unfortunately, willing to oversimplify them for the sake of swaying public opinion. So many of us have chosen to do interviews, write editorials, protest and speak at public events, to spread awareness and to help educate people. But if you think we are doing all this just to see ourselves on TV, just know how much I and others cringe when they air footage of us stumbling over our words or looking as exhausted and frustrated as we feel. The exposure that advocates are getting is often not flattering or even positive because we are saying things that some people really don’t want to hear. If this was all about making myself look good, I’d pick an easier topic that everyone can agree on.
Each of these forms of criticism is an attack on the messenger, not the substance of the message. It is very, very difficult for people to make a good argument against democracy, and that is exactly what opponents of local control are arguing. So instead, they attack the messengers and muddy the waters with distraction techniques.
The coalition of Little Rock advocates pushing for full local control of our school district is broad and diverse. We are wealthy and poor; black, brown, and white; residents of all parts of this city; and we are politically and culturally diverse. That’s a lot of messengers to write off with assumptions that we are all simply self-serving or “just don’t get it.” In fact, I think the diversity and breadth of our coalition illustrate that we really do understand the issues facing public education in Little Rock much better than leaders who are often very homogenous in race, socioeconomic status and political viewpoints. Unlike our critics, we are unwilling to accept that Little Rock School District is “just a mess.” We are doing the work to make it better, and we won’t be deterred by naysayers who simply want to throw stones instead of helping.