Little Rock is a city on edge. Nearly five years after the State Board of Education voted to remove the democratically elected school board and take control of the Little Rock School District, the capital city is bracing itself for its first teachers strike since 1987.
The State Board took control of the district in 2015, ostensibly because of chronically low test scores at a handful of Little Rock schools, and it continues to cite test results for why it won’t return the district to a locally elected board with full authority. But standardized tests merely reflect family income, experts say, and poor black kids make up the majority of LRSD students.
The membership of the State Board has changed since it voted to remove Little Rock’s majority black school board, but the same sense of disregard toward Little Rock and its black students and heavily black teacher corps remains. A new wrinkle is the convergence of that disregard with big money targeting Little Rock that favors putting market principles to work in public education. Some of those same big money interests despise labor unions, and they recently won a huge victory when the State Board moved without warning or explanation to cripple the Little Rock teachers union. Feeling betrayed and disrespected, Little Rock’s nearly 1,600 teachers are contemplating a work stoppage.
LRSD advocates have been speaking out on the state’s mistreatment of the district since the State Board of Education took control. But what had been a simmering protest over often arcane issues boiled over into mass public outrage after the State Board, on Sept. 20, approved a plan that would split the LRSD in two. The plan would return all the schools attended by whiter and wealthier children to a locally elected school board, while putting schools with low standardized test scores that serve poor brown and black children under unspecified different leadership.
At the same meeting, with advocates still reeling over the scheme to divide the district, State Board of Education member Sarah Moore made a surprise motion to direct Education Secretary Johnny Key to end recognition of the Little Rock Education Association teachers union. The audience in the State Board meeting room erupted in outrage. Jim Ross, a UA Little Rock history professor and a member of the LRSD School Board that was removed from authority by the State Board in 2015, repeatedly shouted, “You’re a criminal, Dr. Moore!” LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore told the board that he had a good working relationship with the union and that ending recognition of the group would throw the community into disarray. He suggested he might quit. The State Board agreed to table the motion.
Republican politicians and powerful business interests, including Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman and heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton, have long had the Little Rock teachers union in their crosshairs. The LREA is the last local teachers union in the state with a negotiated contract, and it has been a powerful political force in Little Rock and in the state legislature for decades.
The Little Rock union’s contract has been in place since 1966 and many of the working conditions it established — including guaranteed teacher planning time, duty-free lunch, limitations on class size and due process rights — later ended up enshrined in state law.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., the city’s first elected black mayor and an LRSD alumnus, entered the fray Oct. 7. Flanked by five city directors, Scott proposed that the state scrap its framework plan and instead return the full district to local control. He said consequential decisions about the future of the district — including whether to continue negotiating with the LREA — should be left to a locally elected board to decide. He said the city would redirect some $5 million in funds to partnerships with the LRSD, including establishing community schools that the LRSD would run with assistance from the state, under terms outlined in a memorandum of understanding to be drawn up later.
Meanwhile, advocates were protesting and evoking the legacy of the 1957 desegregation crisis, when Gov. Orval Faubus sent the Arkansas National Guard to keep nine black children from attending Central High. Signs and T-shirts emerged that showed the outline of the iconic front of Central High and read “THE SECOND LITTLE ROCK CRISIS” and “SEPARATE IS STILL NOT EQUAL.” The famous Will Counts photo of whites jeering at Elizabeth Eckford as she tried to walk to school in 1957 was Photoshopped to include Education Secretary Key and State Board members as members of the mob. Many began referring to Governor Hutchinson, who appointed eight of the nine State Board members and ultimately directs state policy, as “Asa Faubus.”
On the evening of Oct. 9, Central High was once more the setting for an emotional public outcry. More than 2,000 people, wearing red and lighting the night with electric candles in vigil, gathered to stand against the State Board’s plan to divide the district. Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, which organized the gathering, summed up the stakes for the crowd: “Either we accept segregation, or we stand and fight.”
An elderly white man in a wheelchair held signs that said “History repeats” and “Sent in ’57, back in ’19.” Preston Clegg, a white pastor at Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, read to the crowd a letter he’d sent state officials: “There is a proper descriptor for policies and decisions that have an inequitable impact on black and brown people. The phrase is systemic racism, even when it is couched in the language of educational metrics and legal jargon. The plan before you is based on data and metrics, but it does not surround that data and those metrics with honest narratives about education, which does not happen in a vacuum. Students in struggling schools most often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, needing more grace, support and assistance, not less. And the schools that have largely been failed are labeled as ‘failing,’ which doesn’t tell the truth about the work of the teachers or the promise of the students in those schools.”
Another speaker was Mireya Reith, executive director of Arkansas United Community Coalition, a former State Board of Education member and the first Latina to serve on the board. “The perspective of my colleagues is the following,” she told the crowd. “They don’t think they’re racist. They don’t think they have racism in their hearts. They go to church on Sundays. They do the best they can to live their best life for their children and families. But they think they know better than us.”
The next day, an overflow crowd packed the State Board of Education room for the board’s monthly meeting. Chad Pekron, a newly appointed board member and a lawyer with deep Republican Party ties, moved to scrap the part of the state’s plan to divide the LRSD and echoed Scott’s call for an MOU between the city and state for handling schools with low letter grades in the state accountability system. He found unanimous support among his colleagues, though consequential details about the state’s continued involvement in the district were left unaddressed.
Pekron then made a motion to refer the decision on whether to end recognition of the teachers union to Education Secretary Key, who acts in place of the school board for the LRSD. District advocates in the audience loudly objected, pointing out that Pekron was merely seeking cover for the board. So Pekron withdrew his motion and Moore revived her more explicit move to direct Key to end recognition of the union. The board unanimously approved it, and the audience chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as the meeting ended.
On Oct. 11, day two of the State Board’s monthly meetings, Stacey McAdoo stood at a podium at the Arkansas Department of Education auditorium and drew a stark comparison. McAdoo, a veteran teacher at Little Rock Central and the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, told the board that its action reminded her of 1958. Rather than continue with the desegregation that started in 1957 despite his efforts, Faubus ordered Little Rock’s high schools closed.
As Teacher of the Year, McAdoo holds an honorary nonvoting seat on the State Board. She told her colleagues that 1958 was “a time when the government was unhappy with what was happening in the Little Rock School District, so they decided to shut down the high schools,” likening the board’s decision to cripple the teachers union to Faubus’ move.
Little Rock’s history has been largely defined by race and schools. Over the years, whites have left Little Rock for surrounding suburbs, the city’s residential areas have grown more segregated, and efforts to fully integrate the school district, often required by long-running federal court cases, have largely failed. The LRSD’s majority-black schools have historically had fewer resources than majority-white schools within the district. Whites represent about 50 percent of Little Rock’s population, but only 19 percent of the LRSD.
Stacey McAdoo has lived experience with that history. She grew up in Southwest Little Rock and attended Baseline Elementary, which was part of the Pulaski County Special School District until a 1987 federal court ruling in a desegregation case required the consolidation of Pulaski County schools within the city limits of Little Rock into the LRSD. That year, she was forced to transfer to Cloverdale Elementary (now a middle school). She was later bused to midtown’s Hall High. All of the schools McAdoo attended have been flagged in recent years by the state for low achievement on standardized tests.
As a student, McAdoo said, she wasn’t especially engaged. She remembers reading history textbooks and “in my spirit, knowing what I’m reading is not true.” More generally, she said, “I was not part of the curriculum.” She was devastated after she got her first black female teacher in seventh-grade English, only to have the teacher quickly recognize that McAdoo belonged in honors English and direct the school to move her to that class.
“Ultimately, I wanted to be a teacher to be what I needed,” McAdoo said. “To do things that teachers didn’t do.” She remembers rewriting lesson plans as a child for her dolls and her brother, Craig, who was four years younger. “Whenever he didn’t understand something in school, I’d re-teach it to him and we’d incorporate music and art, and I’d do whatever I needed to do for him to get it.”
At Central, she teaches communication and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college readiness program aimed at students who would be the first in their family to attend college.
As state Teacher of the Year, McAdoo received a $14,000 award sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation while she completes a year of service away from the classroom. Her platform is “Using Passion and Poetry to Close the Opportunity Gap,” which builds upon her experience leading the Writeous Poetry Club, a spoken word poetry collective.
After she was named Teacher of the Year in October 2018, McAdoo said she sat down with state officials to make sure they hadn’t made a mistake in picking her. Her father-in-law, C.E. McAdoo, was a member of the LRSD’s school board in 2015 when the State Board of Education voted to remove it. C.E. McAdoo was later a plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the takeover. Stacey’s husband, Leron McAdoo, is a longtime art teacher at Central High. Their two children are recent Central graduates, and they are both LREA members and have been active in grassroots protests of state takeover and state oversight of the district.
McAdoo is the first black Arkansas Teacher of the Year in 16 years. The last one, Katherine Wright Knight, was also the last LRSD teacher honored. At an event at the Clinton Presidential Center early in her Teacher of the Year tenure with Governor Hutchinson and other teachers from around the state, McAdoo said she kept getting incredulous questions from people, like, “How did you become Teacher of the Year?” She told the State Board about hearing that skepticism, which she said she encounters often, the same day she told the board its action invoked Faubus and 1958.
“Prior to coming into this role, I knew in my spirit that there was a lot of ugliness out there in the world,” she told the board. “I didn’t have proof to pinpoint. But I will say that in my journey, I have seen ugliness. I have felt ugliness.” A few days later, she told me she regretted sanitizing the sentiment. “If I could redo it, I would have called it what it was: racism.”
Of course, she also gets praise. “I go places. People clap for me. If I fly, they make announcements and the whole airplane erupts in applause. But I’m constantly putting that against knowing what my colleagues, my husband, my family members are feeling on a daily basis. They’re not being celebrated. I’ve often wondered and thought and said how great if every teacher could be celebrated like this. People will say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I like that. I also know lots of teachers who need to hear that message.”
In 2018, Education Secretary Key demanded that the LREA agree to a contract that included a waiver of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act in schools that earned a “D” or “F” under the state accountability system. The state law provides due process rights for teachers. When asked to cite an instance of an LRSD teacher who deserved to be fired but was not because of Fair Dismissal requirements, Key could not. The move was widely viewed as an effort to scrap the contract with the LREA. Community outcry and an emotional marathon December 2018 State Board of Education meeting nearly killed the proposal, but at the last minute, Sarah Moore made a motion to end fair dismissal protection for all LRSD teachers. Her motion carried.
In October, along with the motion to direct Key to end recognition of the LREA, Moore also successfully asked the board to reinstate the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act for Little Rock teachers, a move widely seen as a PR concession.
In moving to end recognition of the teachers union, Moore cited Act 728, a new state law sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville). It makes mandatory the creation of Personnel Policy Committees in all districts, where the law had previously allowed an exemption for districts that collectively bargained with teachers associations. In testimony earlier this year, Ballinger said the change was all about ensuring that the exemption didn’t lead to teachers duty-free lunchtime or planning periods being reduced or taken away and said multiple times that it wasn’t an attack on collective bargaining. Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) suggested that Ballinger was being disingenuous about his aims: Why would the LREA push to reduce planning period time or take away duty-free lunch? she asked.
Moore and other critics of the district and the LREA have pointed out that the LRSD has one of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the state. But the district’s average salary and contribution to employees’ health insurance are among the highest in the state. Those are products of negotiations, the LREA says.
Moore told me in a recent interview that she decided to get her doctorate in education policy from the University of Arkansas after being a teacher and feeling like teachers’ opinions weren’t valued. She attended the LRSD for 11 years. In high school, she left Little Rock and Central High School to move with her family to North Carolina. (Her father, Wesley Burks, is dean of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and was recently a finalist for the top job at UAMS, but withdrew from consideration.)
“I certainly had excellent teachers and went to excellent schools,” she said, but she noticed “inequities” in the district even then. “When I sat in at AP classes [at Central High], I wondered why students in the class came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. What were the factors that led to that and why was that the case?”
Those observations led her on a trajectory to be a teacher, she said. She attended Duke University, where she majored in African-American studies, focusing, she said, “on the American South and learning the history and the complexities of the South over time and what led us to where we are.” After college, she joined the Teach for America program and took a job in Stuttgart, where she met her husband.
Moore described her motion to end recognition of the union as an effort to allow “all teachers to have a voice instead of just one group.” The Little Rock Education Association says 70 percent of LRSD teachers are dues-paying members. Moore said the LRSD would be better served to operate like every other district in the state, with a Personnel Policy Committee, a group of teachers and administrators elected from teacher ranks that make advisory recommendations on policies and pay to their local school board.
But only a union gives teachers actual power. Unlike the LREA’s negotiated contract, district leadership can ignore the recommendations of a Personnel Policy Committee. It’s akin to moving from a representative democracy to a dictatorship, where the leader asks for input, but is free to ignore it. Moore and other LREA critics have tried to frame a Personnel Policy Committee as more democratic than a union, but her motion stated that an outside consultant would conduct the personnel committee election. State law requires that the elections be conducted exclusively by teachers.
After earning her doctorate, Moore served as Governor Hutchinson’s education policy adviser until her family returned to Stuttgart. She said Hutchinson appoints state board members and then allows them freedom to act on their own, but critics see her actions as fulfilling the governor’s promise to the Democrat-Gazette’s Walter Hussman and others to kill the LREA.
Under state control, neither the State Board nor the Arkansas Department of Education have articulated a plan for improving the district, and teachers and administrators in the district say that education department officials have only been actively working in schools in the district in the last six months. Initiatives state leaders have pointed to as improvements, such as forcing the district to adopt state computer systems for accounting and tracking students, haven’t been as successful as the state has portrayed them, district insiders say. Perhaps because of the LRSD’s size — 21,500 students — the new systems crash often. Teachers also resent that the state forced new reading curriculum on them without providing adequate support. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to know if the district’s academic health has improved under state control because the state’s method of judging schools’ performance has changed — and both methods are deeply flawed.
Student enrollment has declined in Little Rock schools over the last five years, fueled in part by the state’s approval of a dramatic expansion of charter schools, which operate with public dollars but through private management. Charter schools receive dozens of waivers from state education laws, often including teacher certification, and are favored by so-called education reformers who believe that applying market forces like choice, competition and accountability to public education will improve academic outcomes. The Walton Family Foundation is a leading backer and financial supporter of charters in Arkansas and throughout the country.
The Walton foundation has also provided significant funding to groups that have been advocating against the LREA and the LRSD. Arkansas Learns is a group led by Gary Newton, who is paid nearly $250,000 in salary and benefits to advance the charter agenda in the state, which means regularly lobbying decision-makers to take action that supports the “choice” agenda and undermines the LRSD. The Arkansas State Teacher Association, started with a three-year $362,000 start-up grant from the Walton foundation, is a group that purports to represent teachers throughout the state, but has largely worked to weaken the LREA and the Arkansas Education Association. ASTA president Michele Linch was the lone voice at the Oct. 10 State Board meeting speaking against the LREA.
At the same meeting, Charles Zook, an LRSD substitute teacher and husband to a longtime LRSD teacher and union member, told the board that high-stakes testing and school grades were being used “as pretexts for the billionaire-backed systematic destruction of public education in order to break unions and usher in privatization.” He noted that his father, Randy Zook, CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, sits on the board of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a Walton-funded charter advocacy group. Randy Zook is married to State Board of Education chairwoman Diane Zook, who has been the most vocal and aggressive critic of the LRSD since she joined the board in 2013. Her nephew is Gary Newton.
Charter schools have long figured into the debate over the LRSD’s future. In 2015, Education Secretary Key hired Baker Kurrus, a businessman and former LRSD School Board member (and later mayoral candidate), as LRSD superintendent. But less than a year into the job, Key fired Kurrus after Kurrus publicly challenged the dramatic expansion plans of Little Rock’s largest charter schools, eStem and LISA Academy. Kurrus presented data 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 the expansion would only concentrate children with the highest needs in public schools. The State Board ignored Kurrus’ data and approved the expansion, and is likely to approve a merger between LISA and a low-performing charter school in Little Rock later this year.
As a result of declining enrollment, since 2017 the LRSD has closed several schools and adopted an ambitious plan to close and reconfigure about a dozen others, most of which are situated south of Interstate 630 and largely serve poor children. They are significant moves that will dramatically reshape the district — in which locals had no meaningful say.
State law requires the state to create “exit criteria” for districts under state control. If, after five years of state control, a district hasn’t met the criteria, the law requires the state to annex, consolidate or reconstitute the district. Neither annexation or consolidation is considered a viable option for the LRSD, the state’s second-largest school district and one that adjoins two other large districts, the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School districts. According to education department lawyers, reconstitution isn’t defined in applicable state law. Attorney and Little Rock Democratic state Sen. Will Bond and other legal experts say that education department lawyers should be relying on a definition of reconstitution that appears elsewhere in state law. That statute says the only reconstitution options are removing and replacing a district superintendent or removing and replacing a school board.
The state didn’t set exit criteria for the LRSD until February 2019, and advocates believe that the education department designed the criteria to ensure that the LRSD would fail.
Even if state officials returned the LRSD to a locally elected board with full authority, the state could intervene in board decisions or limit board powers at any time. The state can retain ultimate authority over the LRSD indefinitely.
The criteria focused on eight LRSD schools that earned an “F” under the state accountability system in 2018. It took into account standardized test achievement and growth — how a student improves or doesn’t year to year based on expectations — as well as some districtwide “qualitative” factors. The LRSD did not meet the criteria in October.
The Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act, passed by the state legislature in 2017, changed the state’s accountability system and gave massive power to the State Board of Education and the education secretary. The law divides state involvement in school districts into five Levels — from Level 1, which is general support, to Level 5 intensive support, which allows the state to take total control of the operation of a district, as it has in Little Rock. According to the law and education department rules, once a district is under Level 5 support, it remains there until exit criteria is met. Reconstitution could trigger the state to create new exit criteria, Department of Education spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said. That means, even if state officials returned the LRSD to a locally elected board with full authority, the state could intervene in board decisions or limit board powers at any time. The state can retain ultimate authority over the LRSD indefinitely. It controls the entire process. Lawsuits challenging aspects of the law and the state’s reading of it may be coming.
State officials and other LRSD critics have repeatedly described the district as “failing” because a handful of its schools have regularly scored a “D” or “F” under the state accountability system.
See below for an explanation of these grades.
Amid State Board discussions on the future of the LRSD, a critique of the way Arkansas measures student and school success came from an unlikely place: the state. On Sept. 10, the nonpartisan Bureau of Legislative Research presented a report on school accountability to a joint Education Committee meeting as part of the committee’s annual adequacy review of public education in the state.
The BLR report notes, as many critics of the state’s treatment of the LRSD have mentioned, that mountains of research show that test scores strongly correlate to demographics. (Stanford research released last month confirms that poverty is entirely to account for the racial achievement gap in the U.S.). “These factors include such things as little to no access to nutritious meals or health care, living in violent neighborhoods, and less availability of stimulating learning opportunities outside the classroom,” the report outlines. “Therefore, demographics are input measures that for the most part are not within the schools’ control … .”
The report said that using a single school grade can “mask the differences of both the inputs and outputs of school.” In other words, if students come to school hungry or dealing with trauma or homelessness, we shouldn’t expect the same test results from them as we do from others.
Stacey McAdoo and others have called the letter grades “psychologically damaging.” McAdoo has a cousin in third grade in the LRSD who, she said, “comes from a very troubled household background,” but now lives with McAdoo’s mother. She missed a lot of school in earlier grades, so she has gaps in her knowledge. “She wouldn’t perform well on a standardized test,” McAdoo said. “But what a standardized test would never show is how brilliant this child is. My cousin is aware that she’s not academically up to par. She’ll call herself stupid. Those are the messages she’s getting from everywhere else.”
At the Oct. 10 State Board of Education meeting, Kimberly Crutchfield, a psychology and sociology teacher at Little Rock Central, told the board she wouldn’t be standing before them without her LRSD teachers. Crutchfield had a baby at 13 while she was attending Mabelvale Middle School. “I didn’t have the support of my family,” she told the board, “but let me tell you who I did have support from: my teachers.” She said she would walk down Geyer Springs Road with a bookbag in one hand and a baby carrier in the other to drop her child off at daycare before hurrying to catch a bus to school. Her teachers pushed her to come to class and stay active. She was on the volleyball team, a member of the student council, part of the band and in advanced placement classes. At McClellan High School, she told me later, she remembered her counselor telling her, “You can be whatever you want to be. Just because you have this baby, don’t sell yourself short.” Crutchfield went on to graduate college and later earned her master’s degree in school administration. She taught in West Memphis for 13 years before deciding to return to teach at McClellan after reading a newspaper article that portrayed the school negatively.
“Teaching is so much more than academics,” she told me. “I think that’s what they’re missing about teachers. I think that’s what [the state accountability system] is missing in how they compute what a student amounts to. Those teachers, without them, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I wouldn’t have a master’s degree. I’d have been another stereotypical young teenage parent living in the projects.”
If teachers strike, they will say that Hutchinson and his allies want to privatize Little Rock public schools. Charter schools in Arkansas are nonprofits, but they often pay for-profit management companies to run the schools or provide consulting. The teachers will say that the governor, Johnny Key and the State Board of Education are ignoring the strongest advocates for students — the teachers. They will echo calls made by Mayor Scott and other elected officials for the state to embrace programs with proven track records: expanded pre-K, after-school programs and in-school health and social services.
Meanwhile, state leaders and education reformers will say that teachers are putting an adult power struggle ahead of kids who are already academically behind. They will say that a strike harms the kids who need help the most. Many have already complained that years of state desegregation payments and Little Rock’s high millage rates have been frittered away. They will cite infighting among past LRSD School Boards and the frequent turnover of superintendents. Mike Poore, who has been on the job since July 2016, is the longest tenured LRSD superintendent since Edward Kelly, who served in the position from 1982 until 1987. They will make the anti-democratic argument that past dysfunctional local governance should keep the district under state control.
Teachers, who have agreed to pay cuts and reductions in district health insurance contributions in recent years, feel like they have nothing left to lose. Hutchinson and other state leaders may welcome a strike, confident their messaging will find more public support. They may view a strike as an opening to exert further “reform” on the district and an opportunity to crush the union once and for all.
There are other reasons to worry about the LRSD’s future. Who will oversee the district from January until after a November 2020 election? Will they have power? Mayor Scott suggested a new group of members nominated by the city and the state. Several State Board members disagreed and said they believe the existing Community Advisory Board, a group approved by Secretary Key from names put forward by local Republican legislators, should oversee the district. The advisory board, as its name suggests, has no real power and rarely have all seven members been present at meetings. The most vocal members — board chairman and lawyer Jeff Wood and businesswoman and former LRSD board member Melanie Fox — are both so-called education reformers who have been sympathetic to the state’s actions in the district.
I think about what this city could be if we get this right. I think what it would do to our city, our schools and our children if we get this wrong. We have an opportunity right now, not just to shape our public school district, but the values we teach our children.
Whoever makes decisions in the near future will have consequential issues to consider. A desegregation lawsuit settlement requires the district to redraw high school attendance zones using a “race-neutral rationale” by 2020. Years ago, the LRSD School Board extended Central High’s attendance zone through the middle of the city into the Heights and parts of northwestern Little Rock in an effort to capture more high-achieving white kids. A move to change that gerrymandered zone and direct more white kids to Hall High School is likely. The State Board has indicated that it wants to weigh in on the planning, which could make an already fraught process toxic.
The state legislature recently changed the law to make school board elections coincide with primary or general elections. Republicans and education reformers have long pushed to move school board elections away from special elections, when only those engaged in a district are likely to vote. With presidential, congressional and statewide elections likely to capture most voters’ attention, the idea is that outside groups might be able to influence an election by putting money behind a school board candidate to buy name recognition. Members of the Walton family have spent heavily on school board elections around the country.
But there are more advocates pushing for local control and against the forces of privatization than ever before. Grassroots Arkansas, led by Anika Whitfield, a local podiatrist and minister, has been fiercely active since early in the takeover. More recently, more students, teachers, parents and other community members have gotten engaged (Full disclosure: I helped start the OurLRSD group of parents and community members and have been occasionally involved in its outreach). Those showing up to meetings and protests have been young and old, and black, white and Latino.
At the Central High rally, Ali Noland, a white parent and advocate who has been a leader in the fight for local control, spoke to the diversity of the coalition fighting for the future of the LRSD.
“The Little Rock Nine got us this far,” she said. “In this same space, 62 years ago, people who looked like me hit and kick and spit on children who were trying to get an education. Right now, we are standing shoulder to shoulder fighting for an equitable education for all students. …
“I think about what this city could be if we get this right. I think what it would do to our city, our schools and our children if we get this wrong. We have an opportunity right now, not just to shape our public school district, but the values we teach our children.”
Noland said she’d been thinking about how, at the end of her daughter’s first-grade school year last year, her daughter stood in the parking lot crying and clinging to her teacher because she didn’t want the school year to be over.
“If I don’t stand up and fight for the teachers who are fighting for my kids, what am I teaching my kids?” she asked.
No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation passed in 2001 under President George W. Bush, first codified the idea that schools should be held accountable for low standardized test achievement. Arkansas’s school letter grades are part of the state’s system for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the Obama-era accountability system that replaced No Child Left Behind. The state’s ESSA School Index takes into account a number of factors: standardized test achievement, standardized test growth, graduation rates (for high school students) and a composite “School Quality and Success Indicator,” which includes a number of factors, including grade-level reading levels, science achievement, absenteeism and, for high school students, “postsecondary readiness,” computer science coursework and community service/service-learning. For grades K-8, 35 percent of the index comes from achievement, 50 percent from growth and 15 percent from “School Quality.” In upper grades, 35 percent comes from achievement, 35 percent from growth, 15 percent from “School Quality” and 15 percent from graduation rates.
In grades K-8, aside from absenteeism, every point of data comes from the ACT Aspire test, administered once annually over the course of about four hours. (Students earn 1 “point” in the absentee portion of the “School Quality” score for being absent, for any reason including sickness, less than 5 percent of the year, or 8 days — which all parents of snotty elementary school kids know isn’t much — and 0.5 for being absent 5 to 10 percent, or 9 to 18 days.) In high school, more than 70 percent of the school “grade” comes from the ACT Aspire or, for 11th and 12th graders, the ACT test. Arkansas is the only state in the country to use the ACT Aspire as its state assessment test.
Liberals and school reformers on the State Board of Education were unified in opposing switching to the ACT Aspire in 2015; experts said then (and say now) that it’s not aligned with the state’s standards and yet the board pushed it through anyway after Hutchinson appointees entered the picture.
A 2019 report from the nonpartisan state Bureau of Legislative research found that school letter grades obscure the range of student test performance. There’s a lot of overlap between the students in A, B and C schools and B, C, D and F schools, the report found. A 2019 state law allows students in “F” schools to utilize school choice and transfer to a different school. So, as the report notes, parents might mistakenly believe that they’re moving their child from a “failing school,” when they’re actually leaving a school where many students are performing above expectations.
Sarah McKenzie is the executive director of the University of Arkansas’s Office of Education Policy, a group that generates research and writing that often favors school choice initiatives. She agreed that school grades are reductive. “Some of us in education feel like the letter grade is an oversimplification of all the things that go on in a school,” she said.
“We know achievement is so highly correlated with the demographics of students that attend the school, particularly poverty and race,” she said. The school report cards are largely defined by achievement scores on the ACT Aspire. How a student performs from year to year is represented as a growth score, which is generally seen as a fairer way to measure school success. “Growth, just because the way it’s calculated, it’s really hard to get the same bang for your buck even if you’re growing really, really well,” McKenzie said. “Achievement is still the main driver.”
Eight LRSD schools are ranked “F” this year. 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. 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. 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 LRSD Superintendent Michael Poore said 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.