Little Rock School District supporters are wearing black today to mark the fifth anniversary of the Arkansas State Board of Education’s vote to remove the democratically elected Little Rock School Board and take control of the LRSD. State law limits state control of a local district to five years, but because of a dubious legal opinion by education department lawyers, the district will remain under the state’s thumb until sometime after November school board elections — and likely indefinitely thereafter.
There’s no credible case to be made that the state has improved the district. Under state control, neither the State Board nor the Department of Education have articulated a plan for improving the LRSD, and district insiders say that the state has only been hands-on in the last eight months or so and that aid in the district has been at best mixed. It’s difficult to determine whether the LRSD’s academic health has improved under state control because the state’s method of judging schools’ performance has changed — and both methods relied largely on standardized tests that education experts agree merely track family income.
But it’s easy to point to the harm the state has done. While labeling the district as a failure, the state has approved a dramatic expansion of charter school seats in Central Arkansas. Then-LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus presented data in 2016 that showed that Little Rock charter schools enrolled fewer kids who lived in poverty, who have special needs or who speak English as a second language and said expanding charter schools further would only concentrate children with the highest needs in public schools. In response, Education Secretary Johnny Key fired him.
With at least a partial return of local control in sight, the State Board has been busy working to reshape the district in the last year or so. In late 2018, the board voted to strip LRSD teachers of their due process rights in a move that was clearly intended to cripple the Little Rock Education Association, the last strong local teachers union in the state. When that didn’t work, the State Board voted last year to direct Key to stop recognizing the union, a purely political move opposed by the vast majority of the LRSD community.
The state has been feckless in its planning of how to return the LRSD to local control. One plan put forward by the education department would have divided the district largely along class and racial lines. The plan ultimately approved neuters the future LRSD board. In what the State Board calls “guardrails,” the future board can’t fire the superintendent, can’t engage in litigation and can’t recognize the union. State Board members have paid lip service to the idea that, aside from those limitations, it doesn’t expect to actively engage with the district going forward. But at the same meeting, the board voted to fire all the staff at Hall High School and to rename (!) a high school in West Little Rock. So color me skeptical that we won’t see more of the same in the future. State law allows the State Board wide latitude to intervene as long as the LRSD is under Level 5 support and guess who determines the criteria for the LRSD to get out of Level 5? The state.
The takeover has been unquestionably bad for the district. But the state’s villainy has unquestionably gotten a whole lot more folks — from all parts of town — engaged in Little Rock education issues. And more of the people who care about education in Little Rock seem to be concerned about the district as a whole and not just their children’s schools. I don’t know that notions of equity would have been as top of mind for a lot of people five years ago.
Although this fight with the state has felt interminable, I don’t get the sense that advocates for a return to local control are wearing down.
Related recommended reading: Former LRSD School Board member Jim Ross’ thoughtful Facebook post on what it felt like to be an advocate at the time, the motivations for the takeover and his pessimism about the future.