A unified path exists for Little Rock schools

by Clarke Tucker (clarke@clarketucker.com) 1,157 views 

Regardless whether you believe the education policy underlying the framework proposed by the State Board of Education (SBE) and the Education Commissioner is sound, the reality is that this plan threatens the stability of the city of Little Rock and the people who live here.

To recount how we got here, the state disbanded the Little Rock School District’s (LRSD’s) democratically elected school board and took over the administration of the district in January 2015. The reason was because six of the LRSD’s then 48 schools (12.5%) were classified as being in academic distress. Today, after nearly five years of state control, eight of the district’s 40 schools (20%) are in a similar “failing” category. The state has never publicly discussed or published a comprehensive plan for academic achievement in the district. It took the state more than four years to establish an outline of criteria for the district to exit state control. The state’s control of the district is capped at five years by statute, and we are now approaching the end of that five-year period, so the state is compelled to finally take some action. This has all culminated in last month’s board motion, which you can read more about here.

The state’s current proposal is ill-conceived, illegal, and unconscionably divisive.

By ill-conceived, I literally mean it was poorly put together, regardless of your opinion of the final product. To their credit (though it should have happened four years ago), the SBE held five community meetings in Little Rock leading up to this proposal. It appears as though the proposed framework incorporates none of the feedback received by the SBE at these meetings.

In discussing the proposal at last month’s meeting, SBE Chair Diane Zook admitted both that SBE members had held private conversations about the future of the district and also that SBE members had individually met with Commissioner Johnny Key and his staff to discuss the proposed framework. These latter meetings constitute a textbook violation of the open-meeting requirement of Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act. These admissions feed the legitimate perception that the state is not acting transparently and that the voice of the public at large does not matter because a few people behind the scenes are calling all the shots.

As to the legality of the proposal, it goes well beyond the authority delegated to the SBE and the Commissioner by the legislature. Ark. Code Ann. § 6-15-2917 gives the SBE three options as to what actions it may take regarding a school district under state control after five years: “the state board shall annex, consolidate, or reconstitute the public school district . . . .” Everyone largely agrees that annexation and consolidation are not options here, because the school district contiguous to almost all of the LRSD, the Pulaski County Special School District, is under federal court control (Bryant is also technically contiguous). This leaves reconstitution as the only option available.

A state may take over a local school district for failure to meet certain academic, fiscal, or facilities targets. For school districts taken over by the state for fiscal and facilities reasons, “reconstitution” has a very specific definition in state law. For whatever reason, for districts taken over for academic reasons, “reconstitution” is undefined. The SBE and the Commissioner appear to take that to mean that they can assign it whatever definition they like. No legal scholar would ever take the approach that if a term lacks a specific definition, then a state agency can unilaterally impose its own definition. That obvious point aside, a few simple rules of statutory construction demonstrate that “reconstitution” actually has a fairly limited definition, and that is to reorganize, remove, or replace a district’s superintendent or school board. The state’s proposed framework here goes well beyond that authority and is therefore illegal.

To boot, all signs point to the state ending recognition of the Little Rock Education Association, which has represented employees and their rights in the LRSD for more than 50 years. This piece of the puzzle may actually affect every school in the district in a way that no previous action has, as every school in the district has numerous employees represented by LREA. If teachers and staff start walking out of every school in every neighborhood in the city, that may engage the entire community in a new and alarming way.

The most important point here is that if the state proceeds with this plan, then it will divide Little Rock in a truly historic way. In divvying up the school district, whether intentional or not, the category of schools whose families will have no input in their schools is a category that isolates communities of color. To effectively segregate students on the basis of race and then to direct that those are the communities whose families have no say in their education is an outcome that no one in 2019 should be willing to accept. I personally believe that the level of rancor, discord, and public protest would be unprecedented if not for what already took place here in 1957. This will be destabilizing not just for our public school district but also for our business and economic development and for our general well-being as a community as a whole. It took us decades to recover from 1957. With clear eyes this time, let’s not do that again.

The good news is that there is a solution that is actually fairly simple. On the day the state took over the LRSD in January 2015, there was an alternative path. It was a motion by then-SBE member Dr. Jay Barth to keep in place a locally and democratically elected school board for the LRSD, but with intensive academic support for the schools most in need of that help and fiscal and administrative support for the district as a whole. It was a partnership between the City and the State working together for a better future. Dr. Barth’s proposal, though five years dated and in need of a little dusting up at this point, still includes an overwhelming majority of the policy underlying the state’s current proposal without fracturing Little Rock in a historic way.

Throughout these discussions, the state has rightfully emphasized its obligation under the Arkansas Constitution to provide an adequate and equitable education, as outlined in part by the landmark case Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee. But Lake View never mandated educational outcomes. If it did, then the state’s failure to take over all so-called “failing” schools would constitute a violation of its obligation under Lake View. Either way, the state’s decision to take over some but not all of the state’s so-called “failing” schools exposes the state to a massive lawsuit based on equal protection of the law.

But most important, by giving the community a voice in the running of their own schools, the state does not abandon its work in Little Rock. For the state to maintain its commitment to Little Rock does not require the state to divest the community from having a voice in the education of their own children.

We have two paths laid out in front of us. Both purportedly seek to accomplish the same goals, but one is ill-conceived, illegal, and would potentially cripple the city in a historic way, and the other is very well thought out, entirely legal, and unifying. History is not always pretty, but our history in this time is not yet written. Let’s do the right thing by restoring a unified Little Rock School District, bringing together our community stakeholders, and exemplifying a shared commitment to the future of our children.

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Editor’s note: Clarke Tucker is a Little Rock attorney, former State Representative, and announced candidate for the Arkansas State Senate. The opinions expressed are those of the author. 

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