Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Our Public Education Crisis: A White Parent’s Perspective

By Barclay Key

August 11, 2015


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 country.


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 few weeks.


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 millage increase.


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 advice.


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 dysfunctional—years.


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 rewarded itself.


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 thank.


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 circling.

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