This is it: the State Board of Education is holding four public meetings to discuss what should happen with Little Rock School District. That means we have a very short window to organize and make an impact. The meeting times...
Tell state leaders how you feel
State Board of Education members
Dr. Sarah Moore
The Arkansas State Board of Education took over control of the Little Rock School District in January 2015, declaring it to be in academic distress. According to state law, the state can only retain control of a local district for five...
The State Board of Education will hold a special meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 20, to discuss unelected Board member Diane Zook's sweeping proposals to radically reshape the Little Rock School District. Zook and others on the Board want to...
Know the facts
Why doesn’t the LRSD have a school board?
In January 2015, the Arkansas Board of Education, in a 5-4 vote, disbanded the Little Rock School District’s democratically elected school board and took control of the district.
Why did the board come to that decision?
It voted to take over the district ostensibly because six of its 48 schools were classified as being in “academic distress.”
Has the state takeover helped?
There’s no credible case to be made that it has. As far as judging the academic health of the district as a whole, it’s almost impossible to say if it’s improved or not because the state’s method for measuring school performance has been completely overhauled since 2015. A state law passed in 2017 did away with the old “academic distress” category and replaced it with a new accountability system that incorporates different metrics. Here’s what we do know: Under the state’s new system, 22 schools in the LRSD earned a “D” or “F” grade according to ratings released in October 2018, including all six campuses that were considered academically distressed in 2015. Those letter grades aren’t directly equivalent to the old “academic distress” label, however. And, it’s important to remember, all standardized methods for grading schools should be taken with a grain of salt.
So, if there’s no elected LRSD school board, who’s in charge?
State Education Commissioner Johnny Key, a former Republican legislator from Mountain Home who was appointed to head the Education Department by Governor Hutchinson in 2015, has acted as the school board for the district since then. When he was appointed, Key lacked the legal qualifications for the job — a master’s degree and 10 years educational experience. His former colleagues in the state legislature did him a favor and changed the law to allow naming a commissioner with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience in education as a “policy maker.”
When does the LRSD return to local control?
According to state law, the state can only retain control of a local district for five years, which would mean a school board would need to be in place by 2020. But neither the Board of Education nor Commissioner Johnny Key has outlined a timeline for a return to local control.
What’s Johnny Key’s political background in education?
Education Commissioner Key and Governor Hutchinson are long supporters of charter schools and policies that attack and undermine traditional public education. That agenda, sometimes misleadingly framed as “education reform,” is bankrolled in Arkansas by Walmart heir Jim Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman and El Dorado’s Murphy family, which owns Deltic Timber and Murphy Oil.
What’s the State Board of Education?
It’s a nine-member board that determines pre-K-12 public education policy in Arkansas. Members are appointed by the governor and serve seven-year terms. Two members represent each of the state’s four congressional districts; the remaining member represents the state at-large. Board chair Jay Barth, whose term expires in 2019, and Diane Zook, whose term expires in 2020 and who will succeed Barth as chair next year, are the only remaining members on the board appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat. The majority of the other members (and Zook) share Governor Hutchinson’s so-called “education reform” agenda. Board member Brett Williamson, for instance, works for the Murphy family in El Dorado and has been a reliable vote for charter expansion.
What’s the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and why is it important?
In 1979, the state legislature approved the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a law that requires principals and administrators to give due process to all Arkansas teachers targeted for termination. Certain steps must be followed, including developing a plan for the teacher to improve and documenting his or her failings. Under the law, the teacher is also afforded a right to a hearing before the school board to contest a firing. This only applies in instances when performance is at issue. If a teacher does the sort of thing you would get fired for at any job — shows up to class intoxicated, strikes a student, goes on a racist rant — the fair dismissal law does not apply and the teacher can be immediately terminated.
Who is Diane Zook?
She’s the unelected chairwoman of the Board of Education from Melbourne (Izard County), who has been the Board’s biggest proponent of charters schools and its biggest critic of the LRSD. She’s married to Randy Zook, the head of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied against the minimum wage increase that voters recently approved. Her nephew, Gary Newton, is paid $237,000 a year to lobby for charter schools through his Arkansas Learns group.
What are charter schools?
Charter schools are tuition-free, open-enrollment public schools that receive public funds but are run independently. The idea is that, in return for not having to follow certain educational laws and regulations, they have to abide by a contract with the state, or a “charter,” which defines their mission, programs, target demographics of students and methods of assessment. The state Board grants charters for a renewable period, during which time the schools are supposed to be accountable to the state board to produce positive academic results and adhere to their charter contract. The theory behind charter schools is that, free from certain laws and regulations, educators can more innovatively reach students.
What are waivers?
They’re exemptions from state education laws and standards granted by the State Board of Education. These waivers might allow schools to hire teachers without certification, not adhere to class size restrictions or not offer fine arts, physical education or gifted and talented instruction. All charter schools have been granted numerous waivers.
Do only charter schools receive waivers?
No, traditional public school districts are eligible to apply to the State Board for any of the waivers offered to charter schools. Since the law that allows traditional public schools to seek waivers was passed by the legislature in 2015, the State Board has granted almost 4,000 waivers to nearly all 235 state school districts.
Are the waivers leading to better educational outcomes?
Who knows!? There’s been no oversight of the process. It’s unclear what rationale the State Board is using to decide what school gets what waiver. There’s been no formal review process by the state to determine what’s working and what isn’t.
What do charter schools have to do with the LRSD?
In recent years, the Education Department and the State Board of Education have approved a massive expansion of open-enrollment charter schools in Little Rock.
Charter schools can’t turn away students, but they tend to enroll fewer kids who are living in poverty, who have special needs (including learning disabilities), and kids who speak English as a second language.
The dramatic expansion of charter school seats in Little Rock has siphoned hundreds of students from the LRSD. Because, regardless of their socioeconomic status, parents who take the steps to enroll and arrange transportation for their children to charter schools are more engaged than average, the siphoning effect raises the possibility that certain LRSD schools will be left with an increasingly high density of students living in poverty and with related issues — teen pregnancy and kids suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness, kids with extreme behavioral problems and so on.
After former LRSD Superintendent Dexter Suggs was forced to resign in 2015 amid a plagiarism scandal, Education Commissioner Key hired Baker Kurrus, a businessman and former LRSD School Board member, to replace him. But Key fired Kurrus less than a year later after Kurrus publicly challenged the expansion plans of Little Rock’s two largest charter schools, eStem and LISA Academy. Kurrus argued that the expansion would further concentrate disadvantaged students in the LRSD. State Sen. Joyce Elliott, a longtime LRSD advocate, noted the irony of the situation at the time: “The same state that took over the school district is now poised to give an OK to an enterprise that’s a threat to the school district and the kids who’ve been left behind?” The expansions were later approved by the state.
Tell me more about accountability standards.
OK, but fair warning, it gets pretty wonky.
What did “academic distress” mean?
That categorization, a product of an Arkansas law that implemented federal accountability mandates created by the No Child Left Behind law, which was passed by Congress during the President George W. Bush administration, referred to schools in which the percentage of students who were proficient or advanced in math and literacy combined over the previous three years was 49.5 percent or lower. The “academic distress” category did not consider socioeconomic factors.
What schools were classified as being in “academic distress”?
The six schools included three high schools, J.A. Fair, McClellan and Hall; two middle schools, Cloverdale and Harrison; and Baseline Elementary.
What accountability standard does Arkansas use now?
In 2017, the state adopted a new accountability framework, Act 930, to correspond with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The new law replaced the categorization that included academic distress with a system that sorts school districts into five tiers, ranging from Level 1 (“general” state support) to Level 5 (“intensive” state support, including the possibility of state takeover). The ESSA accountability framework is heavily reliant on ACT Aspire test results, but it also takes into account other factors, including high school graduation rates, progress of ESL students, student attendance, grade-level reading attainment and community service. It does not take into account socioeconomic factors. Act 930 also afforded the State Board of Education wide latitude over districts in Level 5 support, which includes the LRSD.
How have schools fared in the new system?
In the ESSA School Index ratings released in October 2018, 44 schools in the state received an “F” grade and 145 got a “D.”
How have LRSD schools done in the new grading system?
In Little Rock, 22 schools earned an “F” or “D.” There were eight schools that received an “F”: Bale, Romine, Stephens and Washington elementary schools; Cloverdale Middle School; and Hall, J.A. Fair and McClellan high schools. And 14 that received “D”: Dunbar, Henderson and Mabelvale middle schools and Baseline, Brady, Chicot, Dodd, Dunbar, King, McDermott, Meadowcliff, Rockefeller, Watson and Western Hills elementary schools.