The state took over Little Rock's 23,000-student district in January 2015 because of to low test scores at six of the district's 48 schools. With the five-year deadline for ending the takeover approaching, the state Board of Education last week came up with a plan to return only limited control of some schools to a local board that would be elected next year.
Many details remain unclear, including what limits the new nine-member board would have on its authority and who would run the remaining schools. However, the plan has already prompted comparisons to the 1957 crisis over Little Rock Central's integration. Opponents argue that the move would effectively create two districts, with several predominantly black schools still under some form of state control.
"Why Little Rock? Why, 62 years later ... are we right back where we were before?" Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield asked. When the Arkansas Board of Education took over the district, it dismissed the local school board and put the district superintendent under state control. The state's board last week approved a "framework" for the district's future if it doesn't meet the requirements to leave state control. Under the plan, schools that are rated at least "D'' by the state would remain under the control of the board. Schools rated "F'' would be placed under "different leadership" in partnership with the district, though it's unclear what that means. The plan also says another category of schools that are being reconfigured "may" be run by the local board.
All but one of the eight currently F-rated schools in the district are located south of Interstate 630, which is historically viewed as the dividing line between Little Rock's predominantly white and predominantly black neighborhoods. The latest grades for the schools come out next month.
"If you do this, you're helping to perpetuate a divide that was put there deliberately," Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, referring to the interstate, told the board last week. "If you do this, you will be furthering that effort to keep us divided deliberately."
Proponents say the plan gives parents and community leaders the local control they've been seeking but offers the schools the state support they need to address academic problems. "If the state ignored the academic performance measures and returned all schools without sufficient support, then we would surely have dedicated civil rights lawyers that would immediately be filing a lawsuit saying we're not meeting our obligations," said Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who dismissed the notion that the plan amounts to re-segregation.
"That is wrong, it is not based in fact and it is really trying to resurrect old history that has no application to today," Hutchinson said. The testing system and accountability measures for schools have changed since the 2015 takeover. Education officials say that although the district hasn't made the academic gains it hoped to make, it has improved in some areas, such as its facilities and finances.
"There were a lot more problems in Little Rock than just the way the academics was showing up when we intervened, and we discovered all those after the fact," Board Chairwoman Diane Zook said. Parents and educators advocating for local control say the district is being punished for the state failing to meet its own goals. They also note that there are F-rated schools in other parts Arkansas that aren't being put under state control.
"We deserve one district, not a three-tiered district, not a segregated district, not a district with two leaderships," said Vicki Hatter, a Little Rock district parent. "We deserve one district, one full district, and a duly elected school board."
The plan wasn't released until the morning the board voted, which critics said kept the public in the dark. Other steps taken by the state have sown mistrust, local control supporters say. The contract for the first superintendent appointed by the state to run Little Rock schools wasn't renewed after he opposed the expansion of charter schools in the district. The state board in December voted to waive employee protections for the district, despite complaints that the move would make it difficult to recruit and retain educators.
The board will take up another plan next month to no longer recognize the district's teacher's union, the Little Rock Education Association, as its sole bargaining agent. The proposal was tabled after it came up moments after the board passed the framework for Little Rock schools, eliciting complaints from community leaders, teachers and the district's superintendent.
Under the proposal, the district would set up a personnel policies committee made up of teachers that would offer advice on salaries and other teacher-related issues. "This will allow for wider representation of teachers all along the line and will allow for more discussion," Sarah Moore, the board member who proposed the move, said.
The union has not said what teachers will do if the board ends its bargaining power. "You are not putting students first," Teresa Knapp Gordon, the association's president, told the board last week.
Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo