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Stand up for Little Rock 

If Little Rock deteriorates because of substandard schools, there will be blame aplenty to share. But some elected leaders deserve special mention.

JOHNNY KEY: Why should LR voters turn millions over to him? - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • JOHNNY KEY: Why should LR voters turn millions over to him?

If Little Rock deteriorates because of substandard schools, there will be blame aplenty to share. But some elected leaders deserve special mention.

The state took over the Little Rock School District two years ago because six of 48 schools were judged in academic distress for failing to have half of their students meet the "sufficiency" cut score.

Two years later, the number of such schools is down to three, and at least one of those, a middle school, is close despite an enrollment made up solely of poor children.

State Education Commissioner Johnny Key says — with far too much vigor for my taste, but correctly — that he can't recommend a return to local control until every single school meets sufficiency, even a high school with a huge population of special education and non-English speakers.

But ... the state law is a multilayered thing. While being quite clear on what Key can recommend, it also gives broad latitude to the state Board of Education to take any action it deems necessary in regard to schools in academic or fiscal distress. Board member Jay Barth (also an Arkansas Times columnist) of Little Rock pointed this out last week.

It's unlikely Barth could pass a motion to give tolerance to Little Rock and return local control without at least some quiet signal of support from Key. The district's progress would warrant it, however. So, too, would the fact that the state board regularly grants leeway to failing charter schools, sometimes while expressing great empathy for the work they do with poor children. They are somehow more saintly than Little Rock, which shows better results with similar populations.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) put it bluntly on Twitter: "According to state, 93.5% or 45 of 48 of LRSD schls ARE NOT in state-defined academic distress. Time to return LRSD to the ppl of LRSD."

She's proposed a state law that would clarify that the board has the power to demonstrate wisdom and not deprive the state's capital of democratic representation because of standardized-test shortcomings of a tiny portion of the school district.

It's crucial if the district is to receive the property tax support Key has said it needs. On account of political resistance, he and Superintendent Michael Poore had to pull down plans for a March special election on continuing the existing construction millage for 14 years — a vote that would amount to approval of a half-billion more in additional taxes, much of it devoted to operations. I'm not alone in reluctance to approve a half-billion in taxes to be controlled by a commissioner who not only favored the takeover, but has relentlessly endorsed school strategies — charter schools and virtual schools — that have plundered Little Rock schools.

The state board needs encouragement if it is to take the path suggested by Barth and Elliott. A place to start would be the Little Rock City Board of Directors. Many of them threw in, either openly or by silent acquiescence, to the Chamber of Commerce-backed push to put the district in receivership on account of unhappiness with the majority black school board. Now's the time for them to speak up.

If the schools fail, the city fails. Retired judge Marion Humphrey, a lawyer in the fight against the state takeover, called out state leaders and the city Friday night at a Black Legislative Caucus dinner. Mayor Mark Stodola was in the crowd when Humphrey blasted city officials' decades-long dereliction of duty on schools. One hopes Stodola felt a little uncomfortable.

The majority of voters in the territory in the Little Rock School District, which is smaller than the city itself, are black. Asking them to approve millions more in taxes to be controlled by someone who favored the ouster of a majority black school board is a losing proposition.

A return to democratic control would make all the difference. A City Board that spoke for the entire city, not just the chamber of commerce, should push the state Board of Education in the right direction. Who will help Little Rock schools if the city's leaders will not?


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