Arkansas Parents Fight for Local Control of District

Published September 27, 2017

A group of Arkansas parents is demanding to know when the state will return their school district to local control.

The Arkansas State Board of Education voted narrowly (5-4) in January 2015 to authorize the state to take over the 25,000-student Little Rock School District (LRSD) after six of the district’s 48 schools were classified as “academically distressed.”

At an August 2017 town hall meeting at the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas members of the state Board of Education, the education commissioner, legislators, and LRSD superintendent answered questions from a large crowd of frustrated parents and the public regarding a timeline for the return of the Little Rock School District (LRSD) to public control.

Arkansas Commissioner of Education Johnny Key said during the meeting, “[This fall] we’re going to be looking at all the aspects of district operations,” reported in August. “We’ll look at financial. The facilities. We’ll look at academics. And then we will determine what the next steps are.”

History of State Takeovers

Arkansas law allows the state to assume control of districts and individual schools exhibiting fiscal or academic distress according to state Department of Education criteria. The state has utilized this process numerous times.

As recently as 2011, the Arkansas Board of Education assumed control of the Pulaski County Special School District and the Helena–West Helena School District from their locally elected school boards after the state placed both in the category of fiscal distress. The districts were returned to their communities in 2015, the year LRSD was placed under state control.

‘State Takeovers Don’t Work’

Karen Lamoreaux, a board member and media spokesperson for Arkansans for Educational Freedom, says a private firm would do a better job of fixing LRSD.

“The message [of the takeover] is that if parents cannot elect responsible people to manage the district, then you lose your representation,” Lamoreaux said. “But a great deal of research has been done, and the finding overall is that state takeovers don’t work. While some states might be able to balance the books, this could arguably be done more efficiently by temporarily outsourcing an accounting firm.”

Lennie Jarratt, project manager of The Heartland Institute’s Center for Education Transformation, says state takeovers can work in some situations.

“A state should only takeover a local school district in extreme circumstances,” Jarratt said. “When implemented properly, a takeover can work very well, as seen with the Illinois takeover of Round Lake School District 116.”

Diverse Interests

Kenny Wallis, an Arkansas activist who opposes tax increases and wasteful spending, says the crowd at the town hall meeting represented diverse interests.

“The majority of people just want the school system to actually work for them like it should,” Wallis said. “But there are angry parents and fiscal conservatives who have a vested interest in how their tax dollars are spent, as well as members of an organization that’s proud of Little Rock schools who are angry because if they have a school board they’ll have more control and more money will go to the public schools than the charter system.”

Growing Charter Schools

The Walton Family Foundation, located in Bentonville, Arkansas, has invested significant resources in growing charter schools in the state, including offering public charter startup grants. The foundation is also involved with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center and is the principal funder of Arkansas Learns, an organization “dedicated to excellent education options for all students to ensure the talent and workforce necessary for Arkansas to successfully compete in a global economy,” according to its website.

The Arkansas Board of Education voted in September to accept the recommendation of the state’s charter authorizing panel for five new charter schools, three to be located in Little Rock. Before the vote, LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore requested a more thorough review of the expected community impact of the proposed schools.

Concerned about Common Core

Lamoreaux says the people behind the proposed charter schools are pushing strong state standards and standardized testing, since public charter school curricula must comply with state-mandated standards. Arkansas initially adopted a set of standards aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and since January 2016 the state has been using tests more loosely tied to the controversial standards.

“These groups enthusiastically pushed [No Child Left Behind], Common Core, fought very hard for PARCC [Common Core-aligned standardized testing], and work daily to get approvals for their Texas ResponsiveEd Charter Schools [a system of state charter schools],” said Lamoreaux. “Interestingly, in the few short months since the takeover of LRSD, the city has seen the sale or gifting of empty buildings to charters, expansion of charter schools and applications, and the closure of schools altogether.”

Jarratt says charters aren’t perfect, but can go a long way toward giving families much-needed educational alternatives.

“While private school choice is better, public charter schools are a step in the right direction toward education choice and allowing parents to decide what curriculum and how they want their children taught,” Jarratt said.

Dismantling State Control

Lamoreaux says all states would be better off without state-government interference.

“Arkansas needs to dismantle the state Department of Education and the state Board of Education,” said Lamoreaux. “Let the districts take their 10 percent in the form of block grants from Washington, DC. Let elected officials in their own communities be accountable to their residents for their results. That is local control. That is education with representation. That is what works.”

Jenni White ([email protected]) writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma