Conflicting messages of success and dissatisfaction were the predominant themes of a town hall meeting with officials from the Arkansas Department of Education, state lawmakers and the Little Rock School District Thursday. The optimistic assessments of the state of district schools by Superintendent Michael Poore and Education Commissioner Johnny Key contrasted with vocal opposition from the public.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, a Democrat of Little Rock, was the self-described referee of the event, which she organized along with seven of her Democratic colleagues from the Arkansas State Legislature.
“We missed the ultimate flexibility, and the Little Rock School District was in a position at that time, the schools could have been turned back over," Elliott said. "That did not happen, and we were held under district control knowing a new law was coming into effect.”
The law she’s referring to is Act 930, a newly-enacted piece of legislation that critics say gives the state education commissioner too much power over the district. It requires new criteria to be met before state supervision of the district can end.
Jay Barth, chair of the State Board of Education, tried to return to local control before the law took effect.
“Ultimately the board decided not to move on my proposal for a return at that point, but there is still a good deal of flexibility as soon as we get these analyses of how well the district is working,” Barth said.
He cited an ongoing analysis by the Department of Education as progress in gauging the district’s fiscal and academic health. Though he said the state’s takeover of the Little Rock School District wasn’t justified, Barth said state leadership needs to open up conversation when making decisions.
Another effect of Act 930 is the removal of the "academic distress" designation, which is what originally prompted the state takeover of the now-dissolved school board. Despite a loss of over $41 million in desegregation funding over the past three years, Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore said combined assessment scores from third grade through 10th grade went up.
“So when you think of that type of situation, of $11 million last year, $41 million over a three-year span, if you were to look at that in terms of any other public institution, it would certainly change services, it would certainly create some things that would cause uneasiness among employees and community," Poore said.
Replacing the distress label is a new tiered system, with schools being placed in one of five categories based on academic need. Poore said this system, along with the systems analysis, will allow the state board to make smarter decisions.
“It doesn’t need to be mandates that come down, it needs to be them, our staff looking at what the data represents, where are weaknesses are and our strengths, and then figuring out plans to move forward and eliminating the barriers,” Poore said.
Out of the six original Little Rock schools designated as academically distressed, only one remains under the new law’s level five equivalent. Though the numbers look promising, Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key said there is no timeline for a return to local control.
“So when the bar was 49.5 percent combined scores in math and reading, how do you put a timeline on that? You can put a timeline on the steps you take, but how do you know? So what we have under Act 930, that is a more flexible way to address the issue,” Key said.
Along with allegations of mismanagement and lack of transparency, a common concern from the audience was the impact charter schools have on the quality of public schools. Eric Dailey, the former principal of Capital City Lighthouse Charter School in North Little Rock, said schools need to work together to bridge the gap of inequality.
“So if we think about competition and school choice, you’ll never get the fulfillment of that if you don’t intentionally partner with traditional district schools," Dailey said. "Otherwise you’re just going to have two systems that are serving very different groups of kids, and that’s not what we want.”
Dailey said that the lack of partnership between his former school and the North Little Rock School District should serve as an example for Little Rock as the state Board of Education reviews new charter school applications.
“I would caution anyone to think of a charter and traditional public school partnership and what that looks like, because I can’t think of one in Arkansas.”
With a timeline for the school district’s return to local control uncertain, Sen. Elliott said the meeting was a prime example of civic engagement. She just hopes the public’s complaints haven’t fallen on deaf ears.
“We’re holding on to this school district and picking it apart. And then what are we going to do, wait until it’s picked apart to the point that it is not viable, then we will say, now here’s your school district? That’s what it feels like we’re headed toward," Elliott said. "But I have to believe the board tonight at least saw that people do not want this, people want to work for their school district.”