Sixty-two years since segregation was ended in the Arkansas city, some people say education officials are turning back the clock.
A New Battle Over Segregation in Little RockMore
Exterior view of the Little Rock Central High School, now a National Historic Site, in Little Rock, Ark.(PAUL NATKIN/GETTY IMAGES)
IT’S BEEN FIVE YEARS since Arkansas took control of public schools in the city of Little Rock, and many residents still say it never should have happened.[
Now, those same parents, educators and community leaders are furious about the state’s plan to relinquish only partial control of the city’s schools, arguing the plan to do so would effectively catapult Little Rock back into an era of school segregation by establishing separate governing structures for majority white schools and majority black schools.
The plan, which was never made available for public comment, was approved last week by the governor-appointed State Board of Education during a meeting announced only hours before it occurred. It would allow the best schools in Little Rock – those concentrated in the north and west parts of the city that have the highest enrollment of white students – to be run by a locally elected school board, while the worst schools in the city – those concentrated in the south and east parts of the city that have the highest enrollment of black and Latino students – to be run by the state or some other outside entity.
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The framework, residents argue, would create a two-class system in which some parents, teachers and community members have a say over their schools and others don’t.
“It defies logic to me,” says former state Senate Majority Leader Joyce Elliott, a Democrat who lives in Little Rock and attended segregated schools there until she was in high school. “What’s happening in Little Rock is not new except for the blatant proposal on paper that we are going to practice segregation.”
For a city that was a flashpoint of the civil rights movement, the decision by the State Board of Education, many say, is a painful reminder of the not-too-distant history that is an inescapable backdrop to life in Little Rock.
Wednesday marks the 62nd anniversary of the day that nine black students – known as the Little Rock Nine – were escorted inside the all-white Central High School by the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army at the direction of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Their initial attempts to desegregate the school were blocked by former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who mobilized the National Guard to prevent them from entering the school and by protesters who hurled slurs and spat in their faces.
“I absolutely reject the proposition that this is resegregation of the Little Rock School District,” current Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during a press briefing in his office on Monday. “That is wrong. It is not based in fact. And it is really trying to resurrect an old history that has no application today.”
But former members of the State Board of Education, state legislators, community activists and educators describe the decision as a slap in the face to the citizens of a city where the Little Rock Nine are memorialized permanently at the foot of the Statehouse in life-sized bronze statues, carrying school books and positioned mid-step as if surrounded by the protesters, reporters and troops who swarmed them back in 1957.ADVERTISINGinRead invented by Teads
“We are very, very, very concerned that in 2019, a day before the anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School, that we would even have to entertain something like this and not understand that separate is segregation,” Elliott says.
The State Board of Education voted in 2015 to take control of the Little Rock School District, in large part justifying its decision on the results of a new state accountability system that showed that six of the city’s 48 schools were not meeting academic benchmarks in math and reading. The reasoning bewildered many since other states adopted much higher thresholds for such intense interventions. Even in Memphis, which at one point was home to 69 out of the 83 worst schools in Tennessee, the state still didn’t step in to run the entire K-12 system, choosing instead to absorb the worst of the worst, along with other poor performers across the state, into a state-run school district.
But the contentious decision to take over the schools in Little Rock, which came down to a tie-breaking vote cast by a former board member who now says he regrets his decision, also capped a 25-year period of leadership upheaval in a district that cycled through more than 20 superintendents during that time.
Like so many other stories of district-wide takeovers that fail to move the academic proficiency needle in any significant way or don’t prioritize community outreach, Little Rock now has more schools on its lowest performers list than it did in 2015, and its black and Latino communities say they feel bulldozed.[
Education policy experts have long underscored how difficult it is to fix schools that have been failing for generations, as most poor-performing schools have. Academics aside, such schools are often also hampered by decades of underfunding and racial and economic segregation. Little Rock, with Interstate 630 as the dividing line between majority black schools located south of the highway and majority white schools north of the highway, is no different.
“I would like to think it is, but I do not think it’s a coincidence that the schools in the affluent areas of Little Rock receive zero scrutiny from the State Board of Education,” says Ryan Davis, director of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Children International, a partnership between the university and the nonprofit Children International.
That matters a great deal, Davis and others say, when it comes to the State Board of Education’s decision to partially relinquish control.
“It’s more than obvious that this is a return to what is essentially a segregated schools district,” says Davis, who graduated from Little Rock public schools and whose three daughters currently attend school there.
The plan approved last week establishes three categories of schools tiered by academic performance, with Category 1 schools being the city’s highest performers and, therefore, granted local control. Category 2 schools fall somewhere in the middle. The state board would decide which Category 2 schools qualify for local control and which do not, though there is no concrete language that outlines exactly who would control the schools the board deems unqualified. Category 3 schools are those that fail the state math and reading assessments, and they would operate under a different type of leadership entirely.Advertising
Under the plan, Little Rock residents will elect a nine-person board of directors in November 2020.
Nearly 80% of the 25,000 students enrolled in Little Rock public schools are students of color – black students account for 62% percent and Hispanic students account for 15% – compared to 19% of students who are white. But white students account for more than 50% of enrollment in the city’s highest-performing schools, which are almost entirely located north of I-630.
That means that under the newly approved system, there is a high probability that the majority white schools in a majority black school district will be the ones under local control.
“They’re telling us that, in part, they will slice us up, and the ‘A’ and ‘B’ schools will get their own representation and the ‘F’ school will get a different representation,” says the Rev. Anika Whitfield, a local activist from the Save Our Schools campaign and co-chairwoman of Grassroots Arkansas, whose aunt was one of the first black teachers chosen to desegregate Little Rock’s teaching profession.
“What they’re doing is not right,” she says. “It’s shameful and deceitful.”
Hutchinson said Monday that most schools will fall under local control and emphasized that the state hasn’t yet published the scores from last year’s statewide assessments and, therefore, no one knows yet which of the three categories schools will fall into.
“If the state ignored the academic performance measures and returned all schools without sufficient support,” he said, “then we would surely have dedicated civil rights lawyers immediately filing a lawsuit saying we’re not meeting our obligations.”
Little Rock residents see it differently.
“The governor is tone deaf,” Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, says. “The vestiges of what occured in Little Rock are still a part of the instability. It still looms large and it’s an essential backdrop. Our city continues to deal with the fallout of the 1957 crisis.”
“It is an attempt to divide and conquer,” she says. “Some schools that are in the very nice neighborhoods, those people get to vote for their school board. But for people who are most in need of quality schools and want to have a voice in their community, they are the ones whose voices are being shut out. Why is it good for some and not all?”
For Mireya Reith, who was a state board member until last year and who voted in 2015 against the state taking control of Little Rock, the recent decision is a prime example of the lack of community outreach from above.
“I will not call them racists,” Reith says of the State Board of Education members who voted to relinquish partial control. “They really do feel they’re good people with good intentions and history will write them right.”
The problem, she says, is the historic lack of trust between the residents of Little Rock and the state board, which she says has never made a sincere attempt to understand their concerns.
“While their intentions may be good, they’ve consistently proven that they do not see the community as equal partners,” says Reith, who is now the executive director of Arkansas United, a Springdale-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrants’ rights. “They are leading with the assumption that they are there to protect the kids or voices of parents who are not in the room. But what we have not seen in these five years is anyone going directly to the parents.”[
It’s unclear whether the State Board of Education will reconsider its decision in the wake of pushback or what tools are available to those who oppose it. Educators and community activists plan to hold a rally Wednesday afternoon outside of Central High to protest the plan, which they see as a major step backward for a city that has tried to move beyond its identity as a place that once fought to maintain separate schools for black and white students.
“Every one of those board members I guarantee you would have said, ‘If I was there in 1957 and we were trying to tackle segregation,’ every one of them would say they would not have acted the way people did in 1957, that they would not have been segregationists,” Elliott says. “You look back at what happened in history and you always say, ‘I would not have done that.’ In most cases, you don’t get an opportunity to prove yourself. But this is a historical moment for Little Rock and this is a historical moment for the governor.”
“This is our 1957 in 2019, and people will look back and judge this moment the same way we judge people’s actions in 1957,” she says. “Don’t repeat 1957. Don’t be the person sneering in the photographs. Don’t be the governor who has to be not just persuaded but forced to change what he has decided is the right thing to do. We don’t have the tools to force him, but I would hope lessons of legacy would teach the governor that this is going down the wrong road.”
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