For months I have tried to wrap my head around the moves and positioning going on by the state in regards to the Little Rock School District (LRSD). It has been a giant game of chess, with the state making seemingly irrational moves with no shot at winning, yet every step of the way parents, teachers, students, and concerned individuals know that they are clearly losing the battle.
For a quick recap in 2015 the State Board of Education narrowly voted for a state takeover of LRSD. The main rational at the time (although it has been re-written several times) was a $37 million deficit to the district due to the removal of long-term desegregation funding that the district relied on. At the time there were 6 out of 48 schools classified as failing, something that was a concern but nowhere near crisis level. The public was told the plan was to stabilize funding then swiftly return the district to local control.
In the chaos that followed there was some level of clarity in the confusion. Former school board member Jim Ross gave this warning as he was practically being thrown out the door of the school district
“I believe he (former superintendent Dexter Suggs) is being set up. The people on the state board who voted for the takeover, it is important to know their background. They are all related to or heavily involved in the charter school movement. They are all funded by people who are funding the charter school movement in Little Rock.”
Fast forward to the last few days of 2018 and it was clear that Ross was correct. Through moves and positioning the people now in control of LRSD have been some of the biggest long-term supporters of dismantling school districts. It appears the chess game they were playing was not to win the game, but to make sure that no one could ever win.
The goal has never been to fix LRSD. The goal has been to break LRSD beyond repair, clean up the debris, and rebuild some grand new vision of an education system based on the charter school principles and experimental learning. In education this is absurd, in other industries it is a frequent model. Working in a manufacturing consulting firm previously, often the only way to make a place more efficient was to scrap everything and start over. Working in business now when sales funnels begin to dry up often the solution is to scrap the business plan, rethink everything, and build it again.
To make an analogy, imagine that state-run UAMS had a forced takeover due to their $72+ million deficit. In place of the top level staff, individuals who not only had little experience in running a hospital were appointed, but also individuals who have built a career out of advocating for the removal of UAMS as an institution. To achieve their goals, they want to dismantle UAMS and make it into a different type of hospital that focused on experimental, untested treatments using fresh out of school doctors instead of experienced physicians because they are more likely to adopt new strategies than older physicians, and they are less expensive to hire.
So as a result, in this analogy, they begin shutting down various areas of the hospital that take more traditional approaches, your general practice areas, preventative medicine, clinics, and focus only on areas they can rapidly try new methods. In this time the patient death rate in those areas goes from 12% to 46%, an increase of 283%. Now nearly every other person that comes into UAMS seeking medical treatment will die, or fail at finding an acceptable treatment. UAMS tells the public to trust the new system, silences dissenting views by closing off public hearings, and all the while receives state support.
Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. But it is a risk the hypothetical folks who didn’t like UAMS, to begin with, are willing to take. The same with the charter school advocates now running LRSD, they are willing to risk complete long-term failure on the off chance their plan doesn’t work.
Would you, given that scenario, entrust UAMS with your wellbeing?
The answer is a simple no. You would go to another hospital. The folks left going to UAMS are now the ones who can’t afford to go anywhere else, who rely on the state-run health system that they offer.
The scenario is the same for LRSD and the educational wellbeing of our children. The numbers are the same, we went from 12% of LRSD schools failing to now 46%. That means that nearly half the kids who will go through LRSD now will come out without an adequate education. Do we reach 100% before we say it is too much? Do we just leave every kid behind in hopes that on the other side of this mess we have a new, mostly experimental system that works for the next generation of kids, skipping this generation?
This cannot be acceptable. The state cannot be allowed to experiment with the lives of the kids in the largest school district in the state, or any school district. No wonder Pine Bluff parents are terrified. We must demand better for our kids.