This is for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.
Education Crisis: A White Parent’s Perspective
From the chaos of initial desegregation efforts to the white
flight of the past few decades, Little Rock’s hopes for strong public schools
have consistently been sacrificed on the altar of white supremacy. As a
historian, I knew the general contours of this story before my family and I
moved here in 2012. The story differs only in its details as one travels the
With two school-aged children, we immediately took an interest in
the Little Rock School District (LRSD), determined to do our part to help. New
hopes for our public schools arose in 2013. My board member stood for
reelection, and I decided to get involved. The incumbent was unacceptable. He
never replied to any of my e-mails and exhibited little engagement. One
opponent had previously served on the board and, to my mind at least, we needed
a fresh start. A third candidate, Tara Shephard, agreed to meet with me one
Sunday afternoon. She was a parent and committed educator. She worked with
“at-risk girls,” a phrase that one quickly learns not to use around Ms.
Shephard. She prefers “at-promise.” In addition to her strong commitment to
equal educational opportunities, what I liked most about Ms. Shephard was her
willingness to answer “I don’t know but will find out.” She got my support. I
placed a sign in my yard, donated money to her campaign, and organized
door-knocking in my neighborhood. The incumbent finished third, and Ms.
Shephard won the runoff. A new board member was also elected in another zone, C.
E. McAdoo, a longtime pastor with an excellent reputation.
There is a steep learning curve for new board members, and it is
an important task that literally pays nothing in Arkansas. The educational
jargon and acronyms are mind-numbing. Budgets are complicated. And, of course,
gossip knows no end in local politics. But these two board members were outstanding.
At the same time, board members can only do so much, so in
February 2014 Jim Ross and I decided that we should seek out more ways to help.
Jim and I are colleagues in the UALR Department of History. He was once employed
by the LRSD and has three school-aged children. One Sunday afternoon, we
assembled a few people who were interested in helping our public schools and at
that meeting, we determined that we would approach teachers at Henderson Middle
School about how we might help. None of our middle schools have strong academic
reputations. (Few middle schools anywhere do!) But HMS was conveniently located
for anyone who might want to volunteer, and Ms. Shephard had connected me to
one teacher. I met with her and soon began coordinating a few volunteers in
sixth grade classes for the rest of the semester. We didn’t do much, but
another adult presence always helps. We connected with a few students and
started a book club during the next school year. I hope to return again in a
By the summer of 2014, however, Jim decided that substantive,
sustainable change would require a more assertive school board. Two seats would
be contested in 2014, including the one for his zone, so he decided to run. I
served as his campaign manager. We spent countless hours studying maps,
organizing volunteers, and walking door-to-door in the sweltering Arkansas
summer. In addition to the long hours, I will always remember the people we
encountered. Several explained how integration was a mistake or how they wished
none of their money went to public schools. Others were more supportive,
succumbing to that sliver of hope that new ideas provided. Most were apathetic.
Apathy remains our biggest enemy. Another memory I will have is the stark
differences between rich and poor in this city. We knocked on the doors of
opulent mansions and dilapidated duplexes.
Jim defeated the incumbent by a two to one margin and Joy
Springer, a longtime observer for the federal court of the LRSD’s desegregation
efforts, defeated the incumbent in the other race even more soundly. In a span
of thirteen months, voters elected four new board members and defeated three
incumbents. (One incumbent did not stand for reelection.) The seven-member
board now had four black representatives and a strong white ally in Jim.
Democracy was working for people who were committed to improving our schools,
and the newest members took their seats in October.
The superintendent, Dexter Suggs, was adversarial with the board,
especially its newest members. When he arrived in the summer of 2013, he cozied
up to Little Rock’s white elites, the same people who helped perpetuate
residential segregation and pockets of extreme poverty in our city. But now Mr.
Suggs was confronted by four new board members whose priorities differed
markedly from those elites.
As soon as the newest members were seated they learned that a
state takeover was a real possibility, although no one knew exactly what a
takeover might entail. The law is poorly written and has been applied
haphazardly. The LRSD board developed plans with LRSD administrators to address
problems in schools that the state labeled as “academically distressed.” The
absurdity of this designation and its changing definition cannot be overstated.
The state even relied on different standardized tests and has now scrapped the
test that was used this spring. Nevertheless, our elected board charged LRSD
administrators with formulating and implementing plans that were acceptable to
the state. The board fully complied and pressured LRSD administrators to
prioritize work with these schools. At every step in this process the state
approved of the LRSD’s plans.
The LRSD board even followed the recommendations of the
superintendent regarding the construction of two new schools, one for west
Little Rock (predominantly white) and one for southwest Little Rock (overwhelmingly
black and brown). Ms. Springer’s motion on facilities improvement included the
stipulation that the new schools be constructed simultaneously. If construction
at one site was interrupted for any reason, then construction would stop at
both sites. The motion reflected the wariness that blacks felt about abetting
white flight by constructing another new school in west Little Rock. Although
Leslie Fisken, a white board member, complained about the stipulation, the
motion passed unanimously. The board planned to secure funding through a
But the gods of white supremacy must be appeased. Despite the LRSD
board’s plans for the future and full cooperation with the state, on January 28,
2015, the state board of education voted 5-4 to take over the entire LRSD on
the pretense that six of our forty-eight schools were in “academic distress.”
The stage had been set earlier in the month, when Ms. Fisken complained in a
letter to a state board member that the LRSD board was dysfunctional. It was
clearly a ploy. Several state board members agreed with Fisken that the LRSD
board was dysfunctional and had been for a long time, ignoring the fact that a
majority of the board had recently been elected. The state board, the people
charged with oversight of our public schools, perpetuated the “awfulizing
narrative,” a phrase used elsewhere to explain how public schools are summarily
criticized without nuance or specificity. One state board member, Diane Zook,
even said that we were failing every student in the district. Hyperbole clearly
knows no bounds in Arkansas. As this “awfulizing narrative” took root in the
local press, a few prominent business and political leaders, almost all of them
white, testified before the state board to push for “big change now for Little
Rock schools.” They started a petition and Facebook page. They didn’t define
“big change,” but most people assumed that they supported a state takeover.
About twenty real estate agents, some of the most culpable people in
perpetuating residential segregation in our city, also supported the takeover.
Conversely, if e-mails sent to state board members are any
indication, the vast majority of people opposed the state takeover. Two days
before the takeover, several hundred people attended a rally in support of the
LRSD and newly elected board members. Most people who testified before the state
board of education asked that the LRSD board remain in control of the district.
In fact very few people spoke in favor of the takeover on the day that it
occurred, a clear indication that collusion and collaboration were the order of
the day among Little Rock’s elite. The other six members of the LRSD board
contradicted Ms. Fisken’s assertions about dysfunction. Yet five members of the
state board of education—all appointed by a Democrat—followed the elite’s
Their names will live in infamy in this city. Diane Zook voted for
the takeover. Her nephew is the leading proponent of charter schools for the
Walton Family Foundation in Arkansas, and her husband is the president of the
state Chamber of Commerce. Vicki Saviers voted for the takeover. She helped
start a local charter school and served on the board of Arkansans for Education
Reform, both ventures backed by money from the Walton Family Foundation. Kim
Davis voted for the takeover. He accepted a job with the Walton Family
Foundation five months after the takeover. Toyce Newton voted for the takeover.
She is the president and CEO of a nonprofit community development organization
that receives financial support from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. These
four members have direct ties to foundations that are purposefully undermining
our public schools. Sam Ledbetter, the chair of the state board, cast the
deciding vote. He simply sided with his race and class, apparently unable to
see how democratic governance would bring changes that were long overdue. His
term on the board expired last month. Ledbetter, Zook, and Saviers are white;
Davis and Newton are black.
Two points should be emphasized. One, I readily concede the LRSD
was failing many of its students. That’s exactly why we elected four new board
members and demanded radical changes. That’s why those board members made
specific commitments to restoring successful literacy programs. That’s why
these board members were in our schools, often learning that they were the
first board members to visit in years. That’s why these board members committed
to expanding wraparound services in our schools. That’s why these board members
agreed to heed the state’s advice with regard to those six schools. Two, those
six schools also enjoyed successes. The only elementary school on the list was
literally seven students shy of getting off the list. One of the high schools on
the list soon received a “most improved” award from the University of Arkansas.
Even though test scores at these schools were unacceptable, gains were being
made. Teachers were teaching. Changes were definitely needed, but the majority
of teachers were doing their best under difficult circumstances.
One cannot possibly overlook the state’s role in suppressing black
political power and local white elites supporting that suppression. Even though
students in the LRSD have been majority black for forty years, a white majority
controlled the school board until 2006. We had a democratically elected board
with three new black members and a strong white ally. The state board of
education replaced our democratically elected board with Tony Wood, the white
state education commissioner. He literally had no specific plans for the LRSD
or the “academically distressed” schools, outside of what was already
occurring. There was no magic wand, no special scenario that he or the Arkansas
Department of Education was prepared to implement.
It’s worth noting, however, that the state immediately took one
action. It appointed Baker Kurrus to chair a “budget efficiency advisory
committee” for the LRSD. The district was not in financial distress. Cuts were
looming because of the loss of those desegregation funds, but plans were
already being developed by the elected board to minimize the effects of that
loss. The state’s sudden concern over LRSD finances suggested fears over a
progressive-minded school board with a facilities plan and firm commitment to
equality that would almost certainly give a fair share of business to
minority-owned companies for construction and renovation projects. Kurrus, a
white businessman and attorney, previously served on the LRSD board for twelve
years. The state, which had just complained of long-term dysfunction on the
LRSD board, chose to appoint as superintendent a former white board member who
served during some of the board’s most tumultuous—some might say
On February 14, Wood and Ledbetter appeared in a community forum
to answer questions about the future of the LRSD. The white moderator refused
to allow questions about the takeover. Wood and Ledbetter were repeatedly
shouted down by members of the audience, including three deposed board members,
several teachers, and myself, for their ineptitude and inability to explain why
the takeover even occurred. Our elected board acted with a sense of urgency over
our struggling students; the state of Arkansas seemed indifferent.
Nearly seven months later, no substantive changes have been made,
with one exception. The aforementioned elementary school, the one we might
consider “least distressed,” was reconstituted for the upcoming school year. It
also received a large federal grant, but application was made through the state.
The LRSD previously applied but only won after the takeover. The state basically
The state also recently settled a longstanding desegregation
lawsuit with the LRSD and surrounding districts. For years the state gave extra
money to the LRSD for the purpose of pursuing desegregation. Some of the money
was put to good use. My kids attend an international studies magnet school
created with that money. Although the school’s test scores are not the highest
in the city, I would be shocked to discover a better elementary school in the
entire state. Yet much of the desegregation money was wasted, too, on
frivolous, poorly researched programs and a bloated administration. Now our
elected board will not determine how the last of these payments are used. The
state will. It has settled with itself.
This point deserves emphasis: a majority black school board in a
majority black school district was displaced by whites who accept the status
quo about the education of many of our children. Democrats were responsible for
the initial damage, but now Republicans have taken firm control of state
government to continue the barrage. Mr. Wood resigned his position as state education
commissioner and our new governor, Asa Hutchinson, appointed a white political
crony named Johnny Key to take his place. His only qualification appears to be
service on the state senate’s education committee and operation of a private
Christian daycare. Indeed the governor announced his appointment before the law
could be changed to make Key eligible to serve in this capacity. And by serve I
mean make $130,000 per year.
The state kept Mr. Suggs as LRSD superintendent, until they
discovered that he plagiarized his dissertation. At this point, they cut ties
with him but allowed Suggs to keep a year’s salary, $200,000, unless his
doctoral degree was revoked by his alma mater. (Financial constraints only
apply to people making less than six figures in Arkansas.) In his place, the
state board appointed none other than Baker Kurrus, once he returned from his
vacation in France. This time a law had to be waived by the state board to make
him eligible to serve in this capacity, and by serve I mean make $150,000 per
year. To my knowledge, the state did not announce this position or review
applications. They simply hired their rich white crony who has no training in
education or classroom experience. When asked by a local reporter what he
thought about white privilege, Kurrus claimed not to know what it was. The
following sentence appears above but bears repeating here. The state, which had
just complained of long-term dysfunction on the LRSD board, chose to appoint as
superintendent a former white board member who served during some of the
board’s most tumultuous—some might say dysfunctional—years.
Another dramatic development also suggested the business interests
behind the takeover. House Bill 1733 appeared in the Arkansas legislature
shortly after the takeover. It was apparently written, or at least passed to a
legislator, by Scott Smith from the Arkansas Public School Research Council,
another outfit funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Smith gave the bill to
Bruce Cozart, a white Republican, who eventually pulled it under immense public
pressure. The bill would have allowed for the privatization of any school or
school district that was under state control. There are not many dots to
connect in Arkansas.
In the wake of the takeover, a series of mild protests unfolded.
Most parents and teachers are too scared to take a public stand for much of
anything, and many remain ignorant of the implications of the past eight
months. Apathy and ignorance are killing us. But numerous public forums were
organized where a few parents, teachers, and community members built consensus
around specific changes that we want for our schools. Petitions were signed; we
held a few marches. These activities were integrated to a degree that is rarely
seen in this city, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet so many people
that I might not otherwise know. Jim has a long list of proposals that he had
planned to introduce as a board member. With community input, we have
formulated an extensive literacy plan for schools at every level. I’m sure that
the other deposed board members dreamed of significant reforms, too.
Along with two black board members and another voter (who paid annual
poll taxes when she first registered many years ago), Jim and I are plaintiffs
in a lawsuit against the state board of education. Our attorneys are black; the
state’s attorneys are white. They issued an appeal before the black circuit
judge could even finish hearing the case, so now we must wait on the all-white,
elected state supreme court to return from its recess, hear oral arguments, and
determine if our case has merit. Justice will come slowly if it ever comes at
all. Justice won’t return the money that people donated to political campaigns,
and it won’t return the time spent organizing volunteers and knocking doors. Justice
sure as hell isn’t teaching anyone how to read. Meaningful democratic
governance is dead in Arkansas, and we have both Democrats and Republicans to
Now on the eve of another school year, the state just announced
that it will renege on its contract with our teachers, citing financial worries.
The negotiated agreement has been in place for fifty years, and these financial
worries didn’t prevent Mr. Kurrus from giving teachers a one-time bonus of $350
in the spring. Most of our teachers deserved that and more, I’m sure, but it
was irresponsible to give those bonuses and clearly intended to placate union
leadership before this contract controversy. I’ve been around public education
for all of my life, but I’m having a difficult time understanding how
undermining our teachers’ financial stability, cutting their benefits, and
targeting their union for destruction will help our “academically distressed”
schools. We will neither attract nor retain the best teachers for our students.
Even a casual observer must admit that the state of Arkansas seems hell-bent on
destroying our school system, maintaining white supremacy, and keeping our most
vulnerable children in a cycle of poverty. The vultures of privatization are