Little Rock Howls At State Board Of Education Over LRSD & Charter Schools

May 13, 2016

LRSD Civic Advisory Committee Chair Greg Adams tells Education Commissioner Johnny Key the group wants him to resign. Outgoing Superintendent Baker Kurrus watches, saying afterward "well said."
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

Frustrations of advocates for Little Rock’s traditional public schools were on display at the Arkansas Department of Education build on Thursday even as the state Board moved toward a creating a new civic advisory group and a quickened academic review of the state-run district. 

KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman reports that the state Board’s response to unrest likely won’t be enough to quell the community’s disdain.

“The simple fact is kind of like Dylan Thomas said to us, ‘do not go gentle into that good night. I’ve lost all my gentleness so don’t expect that from me today,” said state Senator Joyce Elliott.

The gloves are off in the LRSD. State Senator Joyce Elliott set the tone for a dozen others on Thursday. The line for public comment was long enough that state Board of Education Chair Toyce Newton tried to limit participation to eliminate “redundancy.”

Senator Elliott stood up from seat in the audience to object, “Since we have waited 18 months (length of state control of the district) if you want to hear everybody, why don’t we hear everybody?”

Two big ideas were on peoples’ minds, including the crowd sitting outside the auditorium in overflow seating. One, the state’s pattern of charter school expansion is effectively segregating schools. Two, the district needs to be returned to a locally elected school board.

The idea of a parallel school structure, via state Board of Education-approved charter growth in the district, was also on outgoing Superintendent Baker Kurrus’s mind.

Soon-to-be-former LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus giving a progress report on the district to the state Board of Education.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

“In a public environment you’d never build two water systems and then see which one worked, which one went broke and then I guess abandon the pipe in the ground. That’s essentially what we’re doing,” said Kurrus. “It makes no sense to me.”

Kurrus spent nearly all of his remarks pointing out the successes of the LRSD. He said the district, despite its problems, is doing a better job educating kids – particularly from low-income households -  than many charter schools.

“Thousands of students in Little Rock go to the best 5 percent of schools in the state. You say, ‘well that’s true Bake, but what about the rest of the kids?’ Well, they’re outperforming their peers. If you look at poverty indexes and see how our kids perform and look at our competitors, and the best to look at are ones in this town. Look at Covenant Keepers, look at Little Rock Prep and look at how we do. We are doing better,” he said. “It’s undeniable.”

Senator Elliott said the racial disparities between the parallel school systems can’t go unnoticed.

“I am slow to call things racist. But I can see. I can figure things out. Some of this is unintentional but the result is the same,” said Sen. Elliott, also a former educator.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) standing up to demand all parents be heard by the state Board of Education.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

The state Board meeting was the first for Baker Kurrus since he was told by Education Commissioner Johnny Key in mid-April that his contract would not be renewed. Key is a vocal supporter of charter schools and recently issued waivers to expedite the expansion of charters that underperform traditional public schools.

He says the appointment of a Civic Advisory Board to work with the new state appointed Superintendent Michael Poore will be a “significant step” on the path to local control.

“The appointment of the Community Advisory Board in that second year (under statue) begins a transition, a return to the traditional roles of a school board,” said Key.

The vote to form the Civic Advisory Board comes as its predecessor the Civic Advisory Committee ends. Its chair Greg Adams delivered its unanimous message to Commissioner Key - resign.

“Some might look at that resolution and consider it unreasonable and dismiss it pretty quickly. Before doing that I’d ask that you imagine the position of the community before dismissing the concerns that led to that resolution,” said a mild-mannered Adams.

Key says this new group, a board and not an ad hoc committee will restore trust between the community and his administration. He said two things about returning local control. That all of the schools in academic distress, originally 6 of the district’s 48 must meet reading and math requirements.

“All conditions that led to academic distress have been corrected. And two, that there are no schools in the district remaining in academic distress,” he said.

Education Commissioner Johnny Key prior to the state Board of Education agenda item covering the LRSD.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

But Key also floated the idea that a less encompassing, school-based state control rather than administering the entire district, could be possible in the fall. New test results, for the first year of state-control are due then.

“If another school or two schools succeeded in getting off academic distress, so we’d have four schools or three schools or some number left, what would we do at that point? Would we continue down the path that we’re currently on working with the district in a state takeover situation or is there something else you all would want to do?” Key said to the state Board.

The state has five years to turn those schools around. What the district will look like when local control is returned is what worries Senator Elliott.

“This is a re-engineering of our schools and our school district and nobody asked anybody in this district, is this what you want.”