EDUCATION SECRETARY JOHNNY KEY Brian Chilson

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts in the place of a Little Rock School Board while the Little Rock School District is under the control of the state Department of Education, hinted at possible new “exit criteria” for the LRSD to return to local control in an interview with Cynthia Howell in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The district is under Level 5 intensive support, which allows the Arkansas Board of Education to intervene in the operation of the school district whenever and however it wants. (See the State Board’s recent decision to rename a West Little Rock high school.)

State law doesn’t establish specific exit criteria. The state established exit criteria for the LRSD more than four years after it took control of the district. Those criteria included a range of factors, but Key and others acknowledged that if LRSD “F”-rated schools had moved to a “D,” the state would have declared the criteria met. School grades are largely based on standardized test scores, which education experts agree largely measure household income. All of the LRSD’s F schools are filled with students classified as low-income.

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The district, of course, didn’t meet the criteria last year and, even as it moves toward again having a locally elected school board, will remain under Level 5 until it meets new state exit criteria. In the meantime, the State Board has said that the elected school board can’t fire the superintendent, engage in litigation or recognize a collective bargaining agent.

Key told Howell that the new exit criteria, to be released as soon as March, probably won’t focus on school grades, but will instead be about districtwide matters. Potential examples cites include carrying out a new literacy program and the implementation of magnet programs.

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In one sense, that’s a positive sign for LRSD supporters. With school grades as the primary measure, the district would likely remain under state control indefinitely.

But it mostly just lays bare how political and arbitrary the state’s treatment of the district has been. The state could have created criteria the district could reasonably meet AT ANY POINT during the last five years. It’s difficult not to see the way things did go down as the state setting up the LRSD to fail so the state could fiddle with the district — remove the union as the bargaining agent for teachers and reconstitute Hall and perhaps more to come. And that doesn’t instill any confidence that when Key hints at a lighter touch, it will come to pass.

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Also, I suspect this paragraph may’ve led some LRSD supporters to spit out their coffee:

“I would submit that we can look it as a day of celebration because there has been a lot of progress in the district,” Key said in an interview, adding that the day creates an opportunity to “look at the wheels and how they are in motion for that return to local control.”