It’s almost Thanksgiving, and in addition to perennial favorites like gun control and health care, there’s a new hot-button topic of conversation that will be on the menu this year: the future of the Little Rock School District. Since you’ve probably got your hands full preparing side dishes, making travel arrangements and trying to convince your kids not to spit out grandma’s famous cornbread dressing, here is my Thanksgiving gift to you, a handy-dandy guide to how to talk to your family about what is happening with the LRSD:
Be an ambassador for our Little Rock School District. If you have children enrolled in LRSD, the most important thing you can do this holiday season is spread the word that you are happy you chose LRSD schools for your kids. We have to actively dispel the myth that LRSD is a dysfunctional mess full of “failing” schools. Those with a financial interest in private and charter schools in Little Rock are actively using the fight over the future of LRSD to recruit families away from our district before their children are even old enough to start pre-K. You probably know friends or family members who never gave LRSD schools any serious consideration when choosing where to send their kids. So, if you have children in LRSD schools, please make a point of sharing with your friends and family why you chose LRSD and why you are pleased with the education your children are receiving. Brag on your school! Talk about the great teachers and the involved, engaged parents, the benefits of attending diverse schools with rich and complex histories. Talk about the outstanding academic opportunities your children have experienced and the sense of community identity that connects LRSD parents from all parts of our city. If you do nothing else from this list, please do this. One family at a time, we can help change the public perception of LRSD, and in so doing we can encourage our loved ones to really take a look at LRSD schools as an option for their children.
Know the facts. The Little Rock School District has not had a locally elected school board in almost five years. The state took over our district in January 2015 based on “academic distress” because six of our then-48 schools were classified as “failing.” There is a debate over whether it is fair to say that things have gotten worse after almost five years of state control because while we now have a higher percentage of so-called “failing” schools, the state changed the assessment criteria for defining “failing” schools during the last few years, muddying the waters and making it harder to assess whether it has actually improved education in Little Rock.
Either way, it is fair to say that there is no evidence that the state is better equipped to run our district than are the people of Little Rock. During the takeover, the State Board of Education has taken numerous actions against the will of the LRSD community: closing and consolidating neighborhood schools, firing superintendent Baker Kurrus for challenging the state’s approval of more charter-school seats in Pulaski County, waiving the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act for LRSD teachers, decertifying the teachers union and proposing a plan that would have divided and legally resegregated our city by returning local control of only the higher-performing schools, which happen to be located in the whiter, more affluent parts of Little Rock.
The State Board now plans to allow the LRSD to hold a school-board election in November 2020, but it also plans to impose indefinite limitations on what our soon-to-be elected board will have authority to do. The State Board has done all of this while limiting public input from parents and community members, and it has never seen fit to simply answer questions from the public or provide explanations and rationale for their decisions. For five years, it has imposed unpopular decisions on this community by fiat. That has led to anger and frustration that is now boiling over, culminating in a series of heated community meetings, a candlelight vigil at Central High School at which more than 2,000 LRSD supporters stood in unison to support the return of our district to full local control, and a one-day teachers strike, during which more than 13,000 LRSD families kept their children home from school in solidarity with educators who have been unfairly scapegoated by the state.
Don’t criticize teachers in front of children, and don’t allow others to do so. When parents divorce, it is common for the judge to instruct both parties not to speak ill of the other parent in front of their children. That’s a good rule to apply when discussing teachers as well. Regardless of what you or your relatives think about the recent one-day teachers’ strike, the value of the union or any other topic related to teachers, please be mindful of not criticizing teachers in the presence of students. It is not in anyone’s best interest to undermine the teacher-student relationships that are key to learning. Hearing a parent or family member disparage his or her teachers can have a huge impact on a child, so I suggest that that you speak up to end this line of conversation or remove your child from the situation.
Remind people that the battle for local control of the LRSD is not a partisan issue. While the State Board of Education was almost entirely appointed by a Republican governor and the people of Little Rock lean more Democratic, the conflict over the future of our schools does not fit neatly into a partisan narrative. Some parts of this debate, such as the value of a strong union, align with recognized conservative and progressive stances. Other parts of this fight, however, turn party politics on its head. The people of Little Rock are fighting for “local control” and against “government overreach.” These are traditional conservative principles that even your most partisan family members should be able to recognize. It is a safe bet your Republican uncle will agree that parents know what is best for their own kids and should be able to make decisions about their kids’ education without government interference. By focusing on general principles like democracy and “no taxation without representation,” you should be able to present LRSD issues to your family members without triggering a partisan political response.
Be ready with ways that family members can help. My experience has been that when you explain the fact that LRSD families have not had an elected school board in almost five years, have no real say in decisions being made about our kids’ education and are simply fighting for a return to democracy in Little Rock, our loved ones are usually very sympathetic and want to help. So be ready with concrete ways that you can ask them to get involved. The simplest and easiest option is to have them email Governor Hutchinson, Education Secretary Johnny Key and every member of the State Board to urge them to return the LRSD to full local control without restrictions. Similarly, you could encourage your family members to donate to an LRSD teacher’s classroom project on DonorsChoose.org or volunteer in an LRSD school by joining Volunteers in Public Schools (ViPS). It is also helpful to ask them to post on social media about their support for a return of the LRSD to full local control, which can help other people see that this is a big issue for everyone across the state.
Be thankful. While these conversations can be emotionally draining, keep in mind that having more people interested in and paying attention to what is happening with the LRSD is a good thing. The best way we can ensure future success for our district is to get the larger Little Rock community, and people across the state, to feel invested in the LRSD. Go into these conversations with a positive attitude and be proud of your work, because the ever-growing coalition of involved and engaged LRSD parents, teachers and community members is something we can all be thankful for right now.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Rest up and enjoy your family, because next week will be a busy one for LRSD advocates!