Being responsible isn’t easy. In deliberating the future of the Little Rock School District (LRSD), responsibility is a key consideration of the Arkansas Board of Education. People generally agree on the meaning of the word ‘responsibility.’ However, this agreement can quickly turn to heated disagreement when those who carry the burden of responsibility must take unpopular actions to fulfill that responsibility.
A quality education system in our capital city is vital to the success of our state. More importantly, as the Arkansas Supreme Court has clearly interpreted, the state is constitutionally responsible for the public education system in Little Rock and throughout Arkansas. Though typically delegated to local governance, the court was clear where the ultimate responsibility rests when it concluded, “No longer can the State operate on a ‘hands off’ basis regarding how state money is spent in local school districts and what the effect of that spending is. Nor can the State continue to leave adequacy and equality considerations regarding school expenditures solely to local decision-making.”
State board members take this responsibility seriously and work tirelessly with a focus on the needs of students. Undeniably, LRSD has not experienced the academic progress envisioned by the state board in January 2015. However, the popular mischaracterization that LRSD has gone from six “failing schools” to twenty-two “failing schools” under the state’s watch, while an easy soundbite, is not based in fact. In 2015, with six LRSD schools identified in Academic Distress and more than a dozen others identified under No Child Left Behind as “Focus” or “Priority,” about half of the LRSD schools had a long history of underperformance.
Although detractors point to F-rated schools as proof the state has failed to improve LRSD, a quick review of the facts supports a very different conclusion. Five schools with F ratings in 2018 received intense collaborative support from LRSD and the Arkansas Department of Education. The result? Four of those schools met the district exit criteria. Other successes include higher graduation rates (72.6% to 83.4%), the new $100 million high school serving students in southwest Little Rock, and the creation of a long-needed middle school in west Little Rock, arguably the most diverse middle school in the region.
LRSD was the last district in Arkansas to implement eSchool and eFinance, vital tools for tracking financial and student data. LRSD is implementing a new curriculum based on the science of reading that is already showing results in K-2 assessments. Finally, following a one-time bonus in 2018, LRSD teachers received a base pay increase this year thanks to Gov. Asa Hutchinson. These successes occurred under state control, despite the loss of nearly $40 million annually in desegregation funds.
Considering the successes and the challenges that remain, what is the path forward to sustainable success of LRSD? In considering this question, the state board is wise to review the history of releasing districts to local control. In too many cases, the districts have reverted to the same patterns of behavior and underperformance that triggered state intervention in the first place, leaving the board no choice but to intervene again.
Using statutory provisions previously unavailable, the board can now pursue a path to local governance through gradual release, allowing for continued monitoring and support until the district demonstrates a readiness for full release. This approach is embedded in the reconstitution framework, and it strikes a balance between the public’s desire for local governance and the state’s responsibility for education. The framework keeps the LRSD intact while providing multiple tiers of support based upon the characteristics of individual schools.
Under category 1, 90% of LRSD schools will resume traditional local governance with continued monitoring and support. Schools in category 2 will transition under the LRSD Community Blueprint developed by Superintendent Michael Poore and his administrative team. Schools in category 3 will receive ongoing intensive focus on improving academics and providing the wraparound services students need to succeed.
In the face of recent irrational comparisons to Orval Faubus and the crisis of 1957, it would be easy for the state board to succumb to angry rhetoric. Thankfully, this board is resolute in its commitment to all students and the members know there is much more at stake than the issue of local control.
Unlike 1957, when the state took extreme measures to deny education to black students in LRSD, the state in 2019 is taking bold measures to deliver education to all students in LRSD, regardless of race, income, or geography. It may not be popular, but it is responsible. And being responsible isn’t easy.
Editor’s note: Johnny Key is the Arkansas Secretary of Education and a former State Senator. The opinions expressed are those of the author.