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How Little Rock Fits Into the National Landscape for State Takeovers of School Districts

By Evie Blad — October 13, 2019 6 min read
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The Little Rock School District, best known nationally for its troubled history with school segregation, drew headlines recently for a controversial plan for partial state control that some opponents feared would exacerbate divisions in the school system. The plan, which was eventually rejected, fits into a complicated national landscape of state takeovers of school districts in recent years. Here’s how.

What happened in Little Rock?

The Arkansas State Board of Education voted last week to return local control to the Little Rock School District, nearly five years after it first took over one of its largest school systems. Control will go to a new local school board after it is elected in November 2020.

After a contentious, hours-long meeting, the board also voted to strip the school system’s teachers’ union of its bargaining power. (Little Rock is the only district in the state to bargain through a union rather than a personnel committee, and the move was supported by some powerful school reform backers who argued it would allow the district to more easily make changes necessary to improve schools.)

The state board’s votes followed dramatic and sustained public pushback to a previous proposal that would have seen most of the schools placed under the authority of a reconstituted school board while those that scored the lowest on the state’s A-F grading system would have remained under the authority of state education leaders or another outside entity. Protesters contended that, because those targeted schools have large enrollments of black students, the plan amounted to resegregating a school system known for a national crisis over school integration.

Clad in red shirts, hundreds of people gathered the night before the board’s meeting in front of Little Rock Central High School, which has facade that is easily recognizable in historical photos of nine black students entering the school under the watch of the National Guard in 1957.

The state board has yet to hammer out how it will transition back to local control, and some residents have raised concerns about its continued involvement. The teacher’s union, which had opposed the original state takeover, is weighing demonstrations to fight for restoration of its bargaining power.

When states take over districts, where is the off ramp?

As the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported, the law that enabled the takeover gives state leaders five years—or until January 2020— to reconstitute the district, annex it with another school system, or return it to local control.

As Education Week reported earlier this year, 13 states allow some form of state takeover of school systems as part of their turnaround strategies. Those laws vary in specifics, including how they are returned to the authority of a local board.

In Arkansas, as in other states, deciding when and how to hand back the reins was a contentious issue.

Little Rock was placed under state control in 2015 when six of its 48 schools were deemed to be in “academic distress” because of low student test scores. Under the rejected plan, state leaders would have retained control over eight schools that score an “F” under the state’s accountability system, which has been revised since the initial takeover.

But opponents questioned the reliability of the A-F grading system. They noted that the lower academic performance patterns coincide with poverty in the city, and they said they feared the plan would amount to a class system, where some families had a say in their children’s education and others didn’t.

State leaders have argued continued intervention is necessary to improve schools, and that families should support such intervention. In a September press conference, Rep. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he “absolutely rejected the proposition” that the tiered plan was “a resegregation.”

“It is important that we continue to provide intensive state support to the Little Rock School District,” he said.

Public trust in school takeovers

Tension over schools is not a new thing in the Little Rock School District, which has had a turbulent history with leadership and governance.

The district emerged in recent years from a decades-long interdistrict desegregation lawsuit that touched on just about every hot button issue in education. In 1984, a federal judge sided with Little Rock district leaders, who sued the state and two neighboring districts to argue that a series of policies and practices had left Little Rock Schools unconstitutionally segregated. In 2010, Little Rock asked a judge to intervene again, arguing that the state was violating a settlement in the case by opening charter schools in the city and surrounding county.

The recent discussions about state control touched on some of those frayed nerves as local opponents of charter schools voiced concern that the publicly funded, privately managed schools would be a part of the turnaround efforts in the area that would remain under state control.

Turnaround methods have been a source of controversy in other state takeover situations, especially in large urban districts that may differ politically and demographically from their states.

Disputes over school turnarounds and local governance often produce the most strain on trust between families of color and their education systems, argues Domingo Morel, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University Newark who has studied state takeovers. His recent research, for example, shows that white residents of New Orleans were more likely to see post-Katrina school improvement efforts as successful than black residents, despite an overall increase in test scores.

In a recent editorial in the Providence Journal, Morel encouraged Rhode Island to proceed with caution on a possible takeover after researchers from Johns Hopkins University uncovered myriad problems with the Providence school system.

“While the long-term effects of takeovers on student achievement often fail to meet expectations, the effects on community engagement are devastating,” he wrote.

Before the Arkansas’ board’s most recent actions, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., the city’s first popularly elected black mayor, had suggested easing some of those trust issues by placing the district in control of one central “transition board” with representatives from both the state and the city. Scott also called for converting struggling schools to community schools, buttressing them with wraparound supports to address the effects of poverty that can be barriers to academic achievement.

Some states are re-examining school takeovers

As Andrew Ujifusa wrote in August, some states are re-examining school district takeovers altogether, even as others are considering oversight of some of their largest districts.

Ohio recently placed a one-year moratorium on “academic distress commissions” it uses to exercise oversight of struggling districts. And, if the state does take control of more districts in the future, it may first adjust how it does so, Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria said in a set of policy recommendations before the freeze went into effect.

While the current structure of distress commissions “may produce some positive results, the potential for significant opposition makes it tremendously challenging for it to function in a way that leads to successful district turnaround,” his report said.

Read more about state takeovers here.