The state Board of Education voted Friday (Sept. 20) on a framework to return local control to the Little Rock School District, although it placed stipulations on how it would return local power after nearly five years of state oversight.
Under a plan approved unanimously by education board members, the Little Rock School District must meet exit criteria before Jan. 28, 2020 in order to allow an election of a new local school board in November 2020. If the exit criteria – which is tied to ACT Aspire student exam scores – is not met, the state plan would continue Level 5 “intensive support” of the district, order the November 2020 local school board election but only return partial control, and establish three categories of schools and control of those schools based on their grades of “D” or “F.”
The state is only allowed five years to oversee a failing school district. At the end of that period if the district has not improved satisfactorily, it must permanently consolidate, annex or reconstitute. The Little Rock School District has been under state control since Jan. 2015 when six of the 48 schools in the district were found to be in academic distress.
The plan to return local control to Little Rock was immediately criticized for the hastiness of the state board meeting, which only allowed about 16 hours of public notice of the agenda item. Also, there have been accusations that education board members may have violated state FOIA laws in discussing the plan privately before Friday’s public meeting.
The state Board of Education recently held public meetings, several of which erupted into shouting and yelling matches, across the capital city.
Based on progress, or lack of progress, among several schools in the district and student test scores, there is little hope that the district would be turned back over to complete local control in 2020, thus the framework plan for not meeting exit criteria.
Under the plan revealed Friday, the state would continue to oversee schools categorized as “Level 5,” which would require intensive support due to their continued academic distress.
A nine-person board of directors would be elected in November 2020. That board would have local control over decisions; however, the state board would limit its authority or operate under the direction of the Commissioner of Education. Details of that limited authority were not provided at Friday’s meeting.
The plan would also establish three categories of schools. Category 1 would be schools with a “D” or better grade, which would operate under the new local board’s control.
Category 2 schools would include schools “undergoing reconfigurations.” They could operate under local school board supervision, but the state board would determine which schools qualify. Currently, several schools are consolidating and being realigned for efficiencies and to improve facilities.
Category 3 schools would be those with an “F” grade. These schools would operate under different leadership, undefined at this point, but in partnership with the district. Several observers at the board meeting expressed concerns that this distinction would lead to a geographic divide in the school district that would exacerbate racial and socio-economic disparities.
Board member Susan Chambers suggested that the schools with “F” grade could operate with “additional leadership” as opposed to “different leadership,” but the language was not changed in the framework plan.
“Today the State Board of Education took action that is in the best interest of students who attend the Little Rock School District,” said Education Commissioner Johnny Key. “The board did not make this decision lightly, as evidenced by the countless hours each member spent listening to public feedback, responding to numerous emails, and asking detailed questions. I commend the board for its diligence, for weighing all the facts, and for ultimately making a decision that balances local control and the constitutional responsibility of the state. I stand behind the board’s decision and am committed to implementing this framework with students at the forefront of all future efforts.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson echoed Key’s support of the decision in a short statement.
MORE TO COME
An additional controversy arose late in the state board meeting on Friday when board member Sarah Moore put forth a motion to revoke the negotiating authority of the Little Rock teacher’s union, the Little Rock Education Association.
That did not sit well with those attending, especially since it was not on the agenda.
“The people that are by far the most affected by this can’t be here, because guess what, they didn’t know about it, and they’re in school right now,” said Clarke Tucker, a former State Representative who is running for the Arkansas State Senate.
“I, as a parent, am asking you to vote against this motion, if not on its merit, which I think it should be voted against on its merit, but because the process here today absolutely proves to this community that you are not trying to have input from the public and that you do not care what we have to say,” Little Rock attorney Ali Noland said.
After objections, the motion was tabled for consideration at next month’s board meeting in October. The LREA represents about 70% of the school district’s teachers.
Editor’s note: KATV’s Shelby Rose and Alex Burch contributed to this story through their reporting.