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2015-2016 Issue III Editors' Picks National

Hostile Takeover: The State of Arkansas vs. The Little Rock Board of Education

It’s hard to pinpoint the day everyone realized the Little Rock School District had gone off the rails, but January 28, 2015 is a good guess. The Arkansas State Board of Education met that Wednesday and, in a contentious 5-4 decision, placed the district under state control. The Little Rock School Board was dissolved immediately. Local elected officials would no longer supervise the district; it was now the responsibility of the State Board of Education and Arkansas Commissioner of Education Tony Wood.

Sam Ledbetter, then chair of the State Board, said, “We want this to be a new day, a new path forward, and a successful path forward.”

The decision to take over the largest school district in Arkansas, with 25,000 students, was a bombshell. No one knew that the district was in danger until May 2014, when the Arkansas Department of Education told the Little Rock School District that six of its 48 schools met the criteria for academic distress. This is a special classification under Arkansas law that permits the state to take extraordinary measures in schools where fewer than half of children test at proficient or advanced levels on state assessments. The standard was previously 25%, but the criteria was changed in January 2013. One elementary school, two middle schools, and three high schools in Little Rock were placed on the academic distress list. Between 39% and 47% of students fell into the advanced or proficient categories at each.littlerockPOSTERINV-2

The actions were indicative of “utterly bad faith on the part of the State Board of Education,” said Judge Marion Humphrey, formerly of the Pulaski County Circuit Court and the plaintiffs’ lawyer in a suit contesting the takeover, in an interview with The Politic. Failing schools in the district, he said, simply were given too little time— one semester and a summer vacation—to show substantial improvement.

And questions remain about whether the takeover was appropriate.

“It was a very racist decision,” said the Reverend Doctor C. E. McAdoo, pastor of Saint Andrew United Methodist Church in Little Rock and a member of the dissolved School Board, in an interview with The Politic. The January 28 meeting indicated that opinion was deeply divided. Proponents of state action on the Board of Education claimed it was the only way to improve an ineffective school district.

Board member Vicki Saviers said, “No bold action of improvement has occurred to change the direction of these schools.”

Ledbetter, former chair of the State Board, agreed in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “At some point,” he said, “you just have to go in a new direction.” (Both Saviers and Ledbetter voted for the takeover.)

But others concerned, including students in the school district, complained that the takeover did not improve the district’s prospects and expressed confidence in the School Board.

“We just want them to be able to finish the job they’ve started,” Josie Efird, a senior at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School, told the State Board at the meeting. “The Little Rock School District has not failed me.”

The decision was complicated by the unresolved question of whether the failing schools indicated a systemic problem in the district. Two competing pictures could be painted: on the one hand, only six of 48 schools were in distress—worrisome but not necessarily grounds for district-wide action or usurpation of local control. On the other hand, three of the district’s five high schools— Hall, J. A. Fair, and John L. McClellan—were failing, an indication that a large proportion of high school students were not receiving adequate preparation for college or careers.

And on the crucial issue of whether state action was necessary—the question of whether every student in Little Rock can receive an adequate public education, regardless of background or neighborhood—opinion remains divided.

“Absolutely yes,” even though “some schools … do seem to be failing,” Max Brantley, longtime Arkansas political commentator and now a columnist for the Arkansas Times who covered the takeover, told The Politic. Parents must remain involved to ensure that their children are learning, he said, but the district still provides good opportunities.

But McAdoo said that, although the obstacles were not insurmountable, the answer is no. “There is an effort to marginalize people of color,” he said. “Without some advocate, brown and black folks will always be at the back end.”

The statistics suggest McAdoo’s concern for minority students is well-founded; a report published in January found that, among other indicators, graduation rates for students of color in 2014 were substantially lower than those for white students—77% for African Americans and 69% for Hispanics against 85% for whites.

But determining that there were racial disparities under local control doesn’t lead to a cut-and-dried position on the state takeover: McAdoo, for instance, said he would have preferred continued control by the School Board, despite the district’s shortcomings and inequities. “It does not help the students,” he said, to have the district under state supervision. “Student achievement has not gotten better.” Only a year after the takeover, it’s difficult to find evidence of trends in the testing data.

The district continues to function more or less normally. Doctor Dexter Suggs, the superintendent at the time of the takeover, left after it surfaced that he had plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation. H. Baker Kurrus, a Little Rock lawyer and former School Board member, is now the superintendent. Johnny Key, a former state senator, has taken Wood’s job as commissioner of education. Neither Kurrus nor Key holds a degree in education, and requirements had to be waived before they could assume their positions. Humphrey laments that public accountability has been sacrificed for expediency (Kurrus reports only to Key, who is in turn only accountable to Governor Asa Hutchinson). But the day-to-day work of the district goes on.

For all the acrimony with which the district’s problems surfaced last year, perhaps January 28, 2015 is not the best place to start after all. One of Little Rock’s claims to fame is that it was the site, in 1957, of the Central High School integration crisis, a landmark development in the civil rights movement and an early turning point in the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education. When nine black students walked to Central that September, Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to turn them away. Tempers ran high until President Dwight Eisenhower called in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the students, who soon became famous as the Little Rock Nine.

The crisis was a watershed moment in the history of school integration. But the rest of the story—what happened after Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Central in May 1958—has been just as influential in the later history of Little Rock public education. Faubus called a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly before the beginning of the 1958-59 school year. With his blessing, the legislators passed a bill allowing the state to close schools threatened with integration. The law was invoked in September 1958, when Faubus closed the Little Rock high schools, and city voters supported closure in a special election later that month. 1958-59 is widely known as the “Lost Year” in Little Rock; many students, most of them African Americans, spent the year out of school because no educational alternatives were available.

Although the district reopened fully in the fall of 1959 with a commitment to integration, its later history was fraught. A busing and reorganization program in the 1970s failed to achieve comprehensive desegregation. A federal lawsuit led in 1982, alleging racial bias in the way students were distributed to schools, led to millions of dollars in annual desegregation funding for the Little Rock School District (LRSD).

But when it was settled in 2014, State Representative John Walker LAW ’64, speaking for the Joshua Intervenors, legal advocates of minority students, told the New York Times that “the settlement is of little direct benefit for black children.” Brantley said the litigation was beneficial and led to measures that encouraged participation in the public schools, but that the time had come for the suit itself to be ended.littlerocksign

The settlement raised new questions for the school district, especially since the end of the suit meant the end of $37 million in state desegregation funds each year. It’s unclear whether the School Board was prepared to deal with the loss of more than ten percent of the district’s roughly $300 million budget.

Though he doesn’t believe the cuts will be crippling, citing “fat [in the LRSD] that can be removed without damaging the classroom,” Brantley described the board at the time of the takeover as “very nearly dysfunctional.”

Although he agrees the board was infected by “dysfunctionality in a political way,” McAdoo objects, describing the members as prepared to address the impending problems. “We were dealing with the loss of funds,” he said. “Whatever came to us, we dealt with it.”

So, why did the state take over the district? The obvious explanation is that, facing a looming fiscal crisis and a judgment that several schools were inadequate, members of the State Board worried about Little Rock students and didn’t trust the School Board to remedy the problems in the failing schools. Some opponents of the takeover, however, have alleged that the state’s action was done for the wrong reasons, perhaps because, as Brantley suggested, the presence of a black majority on the School Board was troubling to a largely white business establishment that didn’t trust African Americans in charge.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, whose court handled the suit contesting the takeover, agrees. “In any other context [the takeover] would be called a coup,” he told The Politic. But in Arkansas education it is “business as usual,” a typical promotion of white authority (Kurrus and Key) over black authority (Suggs and the School Board). Opposition to the takeover coalesced in that lawsuit, which was led in February 2015 by McAdoo, two other former School Board members—Jim Ross and Dianne Curry—and two Little Rock residents—Doris Pendleton, who had voted for Ross for the School Board, and Barclay Key, whose children were students in the LRSD.

“The decision of the Arkansas State Board of Education was arbitrary, capricious, in bad faith and will cause wanton injury if it is allowed to stand,” the plaintiffs said. They also claimed the board’s “actions are … outside of its authority” since “the Arkansas Constitution … assigns certain constitutional responsibilities to school boards.” The State Board’s decision forcing the district to operate without a school board, along with the portions of Arkansas law supporting that decision, was thus unconstitutional.

The case ended without resolution in October 2015 when the Arkansas Supreme Court decided that the case could be dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity–the portion of the state constitution stating, “The State of Arkansas shall never be made defendant in any of her courts.” The Supreme Court didn’t fully address whether the takeover itself had been legal.

But after several years of unrest, the district seems to have reached an uneasy peace. There’s substantial agreement that the current solution is less than ideal.

“Democratic control is preferable,” said Brantley, while Griffen calls the current situation “taxation without representation.”

“I still think that the approach that I was putting forward was a preferable approach,” Doctor Jay Barth, a State Board member and professor of politics at Hendrix College, told The Politic. At the January 28 meeting, Barth advocated a partnership between the district and the state. But, when asked about the long-term success of the district, he said “we’re going to get there.”

The academic distress and takeover provisions in the Arkansas Code provide for a five-year time limit on state control, and by then, Kurrus told The Politic, he hopes to promote better academic performance and resolve the looming budget problems associated with the desegregation settlement. “We have to in essence do more with less money,” he said. But, he added, district staff are “making the sacrifice” that will be necessary.

One of the questions Kurrus asks to guide his work with the distressed schools is how to help students “in circumstances that aren’t ideal.” Some schools succeed even though many of their students are disadvantaged. Kurrus says he’s eager to apply their practices elsewhere in the district. He’s reluctant to take a stance on the events of the past year and says his work is driven by the requirement in the Arkansas Constitution that “the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

dextersuggsAttitudes will continue to vary, and it’s fair to say that Little Rock can expect decades of more acrimony over the public schools. But there are glimmers of hope and agreement.

Griffen, the current circuit judge, believes “the future
is not likely to be different from the past.” The past, he says, has been largely “racist,” “elitist,” and “dishonest,” but added that “our sense of optimism” is essential.

McAdoo suggests structural reforms are important— the School Board needs to be better informed about relevant legislation. School Board members ought to be trained. He mentions “the importance of public ignorance,” arguing that voters need better information if the district is to be improved in the long run. But, he said, the district’s flaws aren’t fatal: “I feel optimistic about the value of learning.”

But Kurrus, who is now in charge of a beleaguered government agency that also happens to be responsible for 25,000 students, isn’t eager to dwell on questions about the takeover, or even the district’s long-term future. “The interesting thing about this work is that it’s critical,” he says, and he seems eager to roll up his sleeves.

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