Baker's dozen 

Baker Kurrus assesses 12 years in the "belly of the beast" -- on board of the Little Rock School District.

Twelve years on a school board takes a toll. Maybe the most difficult part was walking away, knowing that much hard work remains to be done. The greatest challenge was trying to remain positive and optimistic when so many people were not. The greatest thrill was handing my three children their high school diplomas. The greatest disappointments were the lack of outrage at a school system in disarray, and the acceptance by school employees of things that were appalling. The greatest challenge, which is still completely unmet, was and is to find a school district administration committed to deep and meaningful reform, even if that means that some good people lose their jobs. Most inspiring was the dedication and effort of thousands of teachers, administrators, parents, students and volunteers who worked tirelessly to make life better for kids. Most baffling is the lack of any consequence for failure. It was good, bad, ugly and beautiful, and now it is over.

One of the most heart-breaking moments occurred at an elementary school in south central Little Rock. As I was leaving about 9 a.m. after having read to a kindergarten class, a woman was coming in with a baby on her hip and two other kids in tow. All four of them looked like they had been crying, and the kids had runny noses. All were disheveled and looked tired. I grabbed the door to try to help her into the building. She glanced my way and smiled that sort of polite, forced facial expression of perfunctory acknowledgment that we use in strained situations. I asked if I could help her. She quickly passed me and went in the building. The principal told me privately that this woman was the children's grandmother, and that she was working two jobs to try to support everyone.

After everything the Little Rock School District has been through — all of the blood, sweat, tears, time, money, energy, litigation — we have too many kids that don't learn. We have many who soar to unbelievable achievement, but I am haunted by the failure of too many of our city's kids. Don't misunderstand what I will say in the paragraphs that follow. For many kids, including my own, LRSD was an unbelievably satisfying and successful experience. Many, many parents and students succeed, and we all celebrate the wonderful teachers and administrators who make this possible. But should we be satisfied by the successes and accomplishments of some, when many are failing?

Does it have to be this way? Why don't we have integrated neighborhoods, with good public schools and committed parents? Why do we have so much distrust, and so much political infighting? Why is everything a power play? Is it good for our children, or our community? How does Little Rock grow and prosper, and provide opportunity for its residents, if the public schools are not universally good?

After 12 years, I don't know all of the answers, but I think now at least I understand the questions. There are some things that are important and relevant.

The desegregation lawsuit

On Nov. 30, 1982, the Little Rock School District ("LRSD") brought a desegregation lawsuit against the Pulaski County School District ("PCSSD"), North Little Rock School District ("NLRSD") and the State of Arkansas Board of Education. At that time, LRSD was 70 percent black. Some whites had moved, while others transferred to private schools. In an effort to desegregate itself, LRSD initiated the long-running case which continues today. The case was settled by the parties in 1989, and the balance of the litigation over the last 21 years or so has been about the parties' performance of the settlement agreement. From the standpoint of both desegregation and test scores, the LRSD case and the countless similar cases in other cities like Little Rock have been failures. After millions in attorney fees, and literally billions in desegregation payments, in 2010 LRSD is right back where it started — about 70 percent black. This is not a failure of the judicial system. All the courts ever required was that the parties live up to the contractual obligations that they undertook through a voluntary settlement. The litigants, and the monitors, and the school board failed our children by constantly fighting and wasting resources, instead of working to improve the basic classroom learning environments of the students of greatest need. That failure continues today.


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