The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday (Oct. 10) backed away from the Education Department’s plan to restore local control to parts of the Little Rock School District. The board instead voted unanimously on a compromise plan that seemed to please those wanting a faster path to full local control of the district.
However, the board voted for a controversial move to essentially decertify the Little Rock Education Association as a bargaining group for district teachers. Association officials have said they will strike if bargaining rights are removed. An estimated 70% of teachers in the district belong to the association. The last time district teachers went on strike was in the fall of 1987.
As of Thursday night it was unclear if the association would call for a strike. Talk Business & Politics left a message with LREA President Teresa Knapp Gordon seeking reaction to the board’s vote.
INITIAL PLAN BACKGROUND
The state of Arkansas, through the Board of Education, took control of the Little Rock School District in January 2015 after six schools were flagged as “failing” and in academic distress. 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.
Last month, the State Board of Education unanimously approved a plan to return partial control of the district back to a local school board in 2020. Under the plan, 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.
The state’s plan has been criticized by local education leaders. Some argue that the plan again returns a form of segregation to Little Rock schools in that the schools remaining under state control have mostly black and brown populations. Several groups organized to hold a candlelight march Wednesday (Oct. 9) at the historic Little Rock Central High School. An estimated more than two thousand people gathered to express opposition to the Board of Education’s plan.
“Tonight thousands of people showed up at Little Rock Central High School to let the Arkansas Department of Education, Johnny Key, and Asa Hutchinson know we want one school district controlled by an elected board. We want our teachers to have the choice to belong to the Little Rock Education Association and get to collectively (sic) bargain. Nothing else will satisfy us,” noted a statement from Our Community, Our Schools.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott recently weighed in and asked the State Board of Education to take up the following proposals and pass them at the Thursday meeting:
• Full and complete local control of all LRSD schools;
• A temporary, transition school board from January 2020 until a locally elected school board is seated, with elections taking place in the November 2020 general election;
• A “Transition Board” comprised of local community appointments and State Board appointments; and
• Schools in the “F” category operated by the LRSD under a memorandum of understanding with the Arkansas Department of Education and the City of Little Rock.
In a meeting that began at 10 a.m. and concluded at around 5:30 p.m. to shouts from the audience of “Shame,” board member Chad Pekron moved to not have categories for schools in the district but instead put all schools in the same path toward eventual local control. Although Pekron’s motion did not fully reflect Mayor Scott’s plan, the mayor encouraged support for Pekron, saying that “economic revitalization” in the city requires inclusion and investment in the school system.
Numerous speakers rose to support Pekron’s compromise, including Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, Teresa Knapp Gordon, and Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore. Others speaking for a unified school district and in support of Pekron’s compromise included district teachers, parents and business owners.
Some, including Charles Zook, accused the department’s original plan as being a path toward school privatization, alleging specifically that “many of the roads around here lead to the Walton Family Foundation” which he said lobbies against public education. Zook is the son of Arkansas Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Zook, and the step son of Dianne Zook, chair of the state Board of Education. Dianne Zook noted later in Thursday’s meeting that “privatization, charterization, has never been in my mind at all.”
Prior to what would be a unanimous vote for his proposal, Pekron said his plan was just a step, and “there is still a lot of work to do.” He said much work toward unity is required to return the district to full local control.