The Little Rock Teachers’ Strike: A view from the ground

Today, teachers in the Little Rock School District (LRSD) are engaged in a one-day strike to protest a multi-year State effort to limit democratic engagement in Little Rock schools and divide the district. 

Tim Jackson wrote an update for Diane Ravitch’s blog after a crucial State board of education meeting in early October. I’m thrilled to feature him here, in a post that connects the dots between Little Rock’s history and the conditions on the ground today. Tim is a film maker, an LRSD parent, and an active member of Grassroots Arkansas which has organized regular (and, indeed moving) displays of public support for inclusive public education in Little Rock. His post offers important lessons about the impact of free-market ideology on public education and the importance of public voice in response. 

For those who haven’t followed this situation closely, here’s an extremely brief update:

  • In January 2013, the state began a takeover of the LRSD, on the grounds that 6 of the districts 48 schools had not met performance targets as measured on the state exam. The takeover was planned for 5 years. During that time, the state dramatically increased charter schools in the city. LRSD lost resources and enrollment, and the number of low-rated public schools increased from 6 in 2013 to 8 in 2018. 
  • After the takeover expired, the state released a new plan. It would return local control to all LRSD schools, except those that received low ratings from the state. Given existing residential and school segregation in Little Rock, it was dividing the system: local control for white and/or affluent schools and state control for schools that serve students of color.
  • At the October board of education meeting, the State voted to no longer recognize the Little Rock Educators’ Association. Rare in Arkansas, the LREA was one of the only local level teachers’s unions that had collective bargaining rights with the school board.

Throughout Tim’s post, I’ve linked to news stories with more background. To follow along with today’s strike and the response, I highly recommend following Tim on twitter as well as the #OneLRSD hashtag. I’ve also learned a lot about the from the following twitter accounts: @OurLRSD, the Little Rock Educators’ Association, Lindsey Millar of the Arkansas Times, Amanda Cabaniss-Rogers, Stacey McAdoo (the 2019 AR Teacher of the Year), and Ali Noland. Many others are active as well. Lastly, for those near and far from Little Rock, the LREA put out this list of suggestions for how to support their fight for public education. 

Tim Jackson: A view from the ground

It’s been 1,751 days since the city of Little Rock, Arkansas had a democratically elected school board. And while we might – might – get an elected school board twelve months from now, there is no end in sight for State control.

The Little Rock Educators Association (LREA) is going out on a one-day strike today. In the memorable words of Popeye, they’ve had all they can stands and they can’t stands no more! The strike will be a key indicator of two things: 1) How strong the union is after the State has been trying to kill it for five years and 2) How aware (and angry) the community is over the State’s heavy-handed and often underhanded treatment of the Little Rock School District (LRSD) since the takeover on January 28, 2015. The first point might seem like a foregone conclusion since the State actually stripped the LREA of its collective bargaining power last month in another contentious State Board of Education meeting. The second point might be our only hope for turning things around here.

The scene today at historic Little Rock Central High School (Credit: S_ODaniel on twitter)

The powers that be tell us that the State’s takeover is all about the children. But everyone says that, right? You have to look at the actions that come after those words to see what the takeover is really about. So far the State has closed schools, expanded charters, set aside Arkansas laws that protected teachers from unfair dismissal, ended recognition of the teachers’ union to negotiate contracts, ignored input from hundreds of citizens who’ve shown up to speak at public meetings, and proposed a framework for partial return of local control that would essentially return Little Rock to a pre-1957 separate but equal status – which we all know is unequal.

This was never about the children, no matter how much the bad actors in the legislature and Arkansas Board of Education console themselves with that notion. It was always about power and money. And of course, it is about race.

I’ve been travelling around the United States and the world all of my adult life and rarely do I tell someone that I’m from Little Rock that they don’t say something along the lines of, “I only know two things about Little Rock: the Clintons and Central High School.” The story of the nine, brave, African American students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 is well known. A lesser known story is that the following year the city of Little Rock, under pressure from the local Chamber of Commerce, chose to close schools for an entire year rather than allow integration to continue unabated.

There’s a narrative that is often celebrated in our city. It’s the story of the socially prominent women in Little Rock who banded together during the “lost school year” of 1958 to educate students in our city in private homes and churches. They were called the Women’s Emergency Committee. A detail often omitted in the story is that one of their first orders of business was to vote not to allow “negro” women or “negro” children into their group.

Fast-forward nearly sixty years…

In 2014 Little Rock elected a majority African American school board for the first time in its history. The board had barely settled into their elected office when the State Board of Education voted five to four to takeover the LRSD in January 2015. The children in the Little Rock School District that have suffered disproportionately from the State takeover are African American.

Today, in a district that is majority African American, the only person with absolute decision-making authority over the Little Rock School District is a white man with zero experience as an educator. Johnny Key is so unqualified for the job of Commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education that the Arkansas Legislature had to vote to reduce the minimum standards required for the position so Governor Asa Hutchinson could appoint him in March 2015 – two months after the State takeover. By Arkansas law when the State takes over a district the sitting Commissioner serves as a one-person school board for that district. It’s notable that Key’s response to the strike was extremely disingenuous

Arkansas is a small state but other states and communities around the country would do well to pay attention to what’s happening here. The State’s takeover is a textbook example of the game plan the Billionaire Good Ole Boys Club (Walton, DeVos, Koch, etc) is running in cities and states around the country. They endeavor to treat education as a business because business is all they really know.

The chairperson of the Arkansas State Board of Education, Diane Zook, is married to Randy Zook who is president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce. Randy Zook was publicly advocating for a radical expansion of charter schools in Arkansas well before the State takeover. The Zooks’ nephew is the Walton Foundation’s lobbyist for its privatized public school initiatives and is the titular head of the Walton backed organization, Arkansas Learns. And then there’s Governor Asa Hutchinson. You don’t get to be Governor in Arkansas by alienating the Walton family and your tenure as Governor is greatly enhanced if the Waltons’ goals become your goals. The Walton-Zook-Hutchinson triumvirate cut through the Little Rock School District like a hot knife through butter – providing a pilot program for how to undermine public education and profit from it at the same time.

There’s a larger conversation to be had about public education but the bottom line is simply this: Public education is not failing in America. Americans have failed public education. Under the guise of “school choice” we’ve made seeking our children’s well being at the expense of other people’s children seem like a noble pursuit. Charter school enrollment lotteries might as well be marketed with the slogan: “Let them eat cake.” Billionaires are selling the lie that schools should be run like businesses and using children as pawns in power-moves and cash grabs. We can do better. But I’m afraid we never will until we first own up to how poorly we’ve done so far.

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