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On school performance 

State Education Commissioner Johnny Key recently announced he intends to ask the state to grant principals the ability to fire teachers, without due process, in what the state considers failing schools. As a parent of a Little Rock School District student, I thought it would be prudent to share my analysis of the data provided by the Arkansas Department of Education (myschoolinfo.arkansas.gov) as we rightly consider the effect of race and poverty in our public schools. What I found is not surprising, but is unsettling.

This is critical because Key's proposal, I believe, does not consider the full range of issues that has burdened our students and those who support them. Helping our students excel does not require a waiver for principals to fire ineffective or bad teachers. Principals can do that now, and it does not take the two years Key recently cited. It can be done within a semester, as long as principals do their job and document the dismissal process.

The issue is so much deeper, and the problem goes well beyond Little Rock.

According to the most recent ADE data, there are no A-rated Arkansas schools with a majority of black students and with a majority of students classified as low-income. As for B-rated schools, there are only three in the state with a majority of black students and a majority of low-income students. Two of those three schools are in the Little Rock School District: Gibbs Magnet Elementary School and Williams Magnet Elementary School.

In the three years since the state has taken over the LRSD, did it not occur to anyone to go to Gibbs and Williams to see what is working there and reflect on what could be implemented elsewhere in the district?

We certainly have to consider, in light of the desire to waive the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal law for low-performing schools, the state department's efforts to improve academic achievement in our schools, especially since the takeover. The state took over the LRSD in 2015 ostensibly because six of its 48 schools were classified as being in academic distress. Three years later, with the state in charge, 22 schools are now classified as failing.

The state was directly involved in the failing schools before 2015, yet these schools still underperformed. Three years under state control, the number of failing schools in LRSD has more than tripled. It's unclear exactly what the state has done in those three years, but most would agree the end result is unacceptable.

Key noted a recent statewide initiative to improve early literacy, and while that focus is warranted and appreciated, it is a broad brush that does not touch on the core issues facing our struggling schools.

If we are to get serious about improving our schools, the state should look to addressing the poverty and race problems that have existed in Arkansas for decades.

The data

School demographic and performance data paint a clear picture. For example, did you know the average minority population of all A-rated schools in Arkansas is 19 percent, while the white population of these schools is 77 percent? On the other hand, the average minority population of F-rated schools is 87 percent, while these same schools have 12 percent white populations. One can also see a direct correlation between letter grades and the percentage of low-income students in the population. Arkansas schools receiving an A-rating had, on average, a 42.35 percent low-income population, while F-rated schools had low-income populations, on average, of 87.10 percent.

Here's the full breakdown for all public schools:

A

19.05% — Non-white population

77.13% — White population

42.35% — Low-income population

B

23.72% — Non-white population

74.23% — White population

57.16% — Low-income population

C

31.93% — Non-white population

66.35% — White population

68.84% — Low-income population

D

64.52% — Non-white population

34.3% — White population

77.73% — Low-income population

F

87.32% — Non-white population

12.09% — White population

87.10% — Low-income population

Something else I noted from the data was that there are no A or B-rated high schools in Arkansas with both a majority low-income and majority black population, and only four in the entire state of Arkansas received a C rating. All others received a D or F rating.

Charter schools

One major change in Little Rock since the state takeover has been the increased number of charter schools in the area. The data show that charter schools are not the panacea you may have thought they were for black and low-income students.

There are 16 charter schools in Arkansas that have a majority low-income and majority black population. None of these schools received an A or B rating. Two (Kipp Delta and Little Rock Prep) received a C rating. The remaining 14 charter schools received a D or F. If we flipped that to look at only the charter schools with less diversity and more affluence (fewer than 50 percent black population and fewer than 50 percent low-income), there were nine charter schools that received an A-rating, three with a B-rating, one with a C-rating, and one with a D rating.

Notably, the school receiving the highest rating was Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville, which received an almost perfect score on the state's rating scale. This school, which purports to have a randomized lottery admission system, has a black population of only 1.1 percent and a Latino population of 6.61 percent. This school also has no English-language learner students and no special education students. This is supposed to be an open-enrollment charter school with a randomized lottery admission, and it has no special education students, no ELL students and black students comprising 1 percent of the school population.

Teacher licensure waivers

Did you know there are 28 schools in Arkansas that have been allowed to hire more than five unlicensed teachers to teach in their schools? Some of these schools have as many as 22 unlicensed teachers. Twenty of these schools received a D or F-rating from the state. All but four of these schools have a majority of non-white students.

The demand for these license waivers has been from school superintendents who say they can't get quality teachers to teach in their high-poverty or large-minority districts. If I were inclined to get political, I would suggest that we quit cutting taxes to the very rich and start diverting that money, as well as focused support, to these districts that have a hard time attracting good teachers. Instead, it seems as though we get half-hearted measures and a wringing of hands.

Where the focus should be

The answer is simple in general terms: Provide a more-than-decent wage for teachers, fix the dilapidated schools that our kids have to attend, and give schools, as well as local universities and community partners, the resources they need. Beyond a moral imperative, this is also the legal onus placed on the state by the Lake View decision in 2002.

The hard part is commitment and focus. Do we want to lift our students out of poverty? Do we want to correct the evils of segregation? Well, it starts with us, as a community, to support our public schools by our presence, our investment of energy, and a commitment to holding our state government accountable.

That is why I am writing to you today, to ask that you join us in refocusing our efforts in the state to prioritize solutions addressing inequities caused by race and poverty rather than continue a campaign of scapegoating teachers.

Dr. Michael Mills is an associate professor in the UCA College of Education. He is speaking as a parent of an LRSD student, and his views do not necessarily reflect those of UCA.

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