Plan for Little Rock schools stokes fears about segregation

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A plan to only grant Little Rock partial control of its schools is drawing complaints that the district may further segregate 62 years after nine black students were escorted into an all-white high school, and a push to end the local teachers union’s bargaining power is stirring fears of even more instability.

Arkansas has been in control of the 23,000-student district since January 2015, when the state took it over in response to low test scores at several schools. With the five-year deadline for ending the takeover approaching, the state Board of Education last week came up with a new plan : return limited control of some schools to a local board that will 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 the move will 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.

The Arkansas Board of Education took over the district due to poor academic performance at six of its 48 schools, dismissing the district’s school board and putting its 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 will be under the control of the board. Schools rated “F” will be 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, 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.

Proponents say the plan gives parents and community leaders the local control they’ve been seeking but offers the schools the support they need from the state 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,” Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said. Hutchinson has also dismissed the idea 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 while the district hasn’t made the academic gains they hoped for, they point to areas where they think the district has improved such as 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,” Vicki Hatter, a Little Rock district parent, said. “We deserve one district, one full district, and a duly elected school board.”

The plan wasn’t released until the morning of the board vote, a move that 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 end its bargaining power.

“You are not putting students first,” Teresa Knapp Gordon, the association’s president, told the board last week.

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