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story.lead_photo.caption Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, (left) listens with others Tuesday as state Education Commissioner Johnny Key (top, right) discusses his proposed waiver of the state’s Teacher Fair Dismissal Act for selected Little Rock schools after rejecting a contract already approved by the Little Rock teachers’ union. Elliott said afterward that teachers can’t always overcome all the circumstances of “marginalized,” socioeconomically disadvantaged families. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key said Tuesday that his call for a waiver of the state's teacher employment protection law in 22 D- and F-rated Little Rock schools is a newly available tool to quickly raise student achievement.

Key talked about the proposed waiver of the state's Teacher Fair Dismissal Act a day after he rejected a tentative contract agreement between the Little Rock district and the Little Rock Education Association teachers' union.

Key directed Superintendent Mike Poore to take the rejected contract back to the negotiating table to reach an agreement to waive "cumbersome" teacher dismissal laws for the nearly two dozen F and D schools that serve just under 11,000 students.

Sending a tentative agreement between the district and its teacher association back to the negotiating table for revisions is not unprecedented in recent Little Rock School District history, but a waiver of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act in selected schools would be a first in the district and state.

"The recently released 2018 school ratings for the district reflect insufficient progress in improving academic performance in several schools," Key told reporters Tuesday in explaining the proposed waiver that would have to go to the Arkansas Board of Education for final approval. "This troubles me greatly, and I would think it would trouble the entire community," he said about what he called inconsistent achievement at the schools.

Affected D- and F-rated schools include Hall, J.A. Fair and McClellan high schools, as well as Cloverdale, Henderson, Dunbar and Mabelvale middle schools and several elementary schools.

The letter grades are based on last spring's state-mandated ACT Aspire test results, improvement on those tests since 2017 and other factors such as graduation rates, college entrance exam scores and student attendance.

Key acts as the school board for the Little Rock district, which has operated under state control since January 2015 because of chronically low student test scores at six schools at that time.

A tentative teacher contract agreement -- also known as the professional negotiations agreement -- requires ratification by Key and the association membership to be final.

Association membership had approved the initial tentative agreement earlier this month.

A full auditorium of about 300 members met again Tuesday night, Little Rock Education Association President Teresa Knapp Gordon said.

The membership directed Gordon and her team to return to the negotiating table for reopened contract talks with district leaders, she said. No date has been set for those talks.

Gordon described the mood of the members at the closed meeting as disappointed, concerned and angry. She said the association, which negotiates on behalf of all teachers and most support staff employees, has made sacrifices in recent years to help the district remain solvent. More than 60 percent of teachers are dues-paying members to the organization.

Earlier Tuesday, Gordon waited outside Key's meeting with reporters. She and Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, vehemently objected to the proposed waiver for 22 of the district's 40 schools, saying that teachers won't want to work at the schools without job protections that are provided to their colleagues at other campuses.

The Teacher Fair Dismissal Act establishes steps that must be taken to help an educator improve before any decision to fire the person. Those steps include observations and evaluations of the educator as well as the development of an improvement plan and a right to a hearing before the School Board.

Gordon said principals should be held at fault for not taking the steps necessary to remove teachers for poor job performance.

Elliott said teachers can make huge differences in the lives of their students but can't always overcome all the circumstances of the "marginalized," socioeconomically disadvantaged families that they serve.

Key called the proposed waiver provision "another tool in the toolbox" to help Poore and district principals create the conditions for greater and faster achievement. He listed other steps that the state has taken to aid the achievement in the district, including the appointment of teams of Education Department staffers as advisers to the schools.

More recent are statewide initiatives to improve reading instruction and develop professional learning communities of teachers to plan curriculum and address student needs.

"I'm pretty sure it would not be drastic," he said about any resulting staffing changes in the district. "This would be a tool that I'm pretty sure would not be used as a chain saw but would be used more as a scalpel to address those things that principals have identified as needing to be addressed.

"In most cases, there may not be anything that would happen," Key continued about the effect of the proposed waiver if it is approved by the state Education Board when it meets Nov. 8. "But the district and principals would have greater flexibility in making staffing decisions and staffing changes as they move forward as they get ready for the 2019-20 school year."

Key said it is not his intention that staffing changes be made at the 22 schools in the midst of the current school year.

In response to questions, Key said Poore and district principals say it can take as long as two years to follow all of the legally required steps for firing a teacher for poor job performance. He said he didn't know how many firing attempts were made, "but there have been some."

He also said principals have reported to him that there are situations where they need to make some moves, but they have been "hamstrung by the process." He also said he couldn't cite more than one specific example of a teacher termination that rose to his level as the acting school board.

The potential waiver of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act in an academically struggling school system is a new option, Key said, made possible by Act 930 of 2017 and accompanying rules and regulations.

That law authorizes a waiver of the teacher employment protection law in a district that has been classified by the state Board of Education as a Level 5 district in need of intensive support, he said.

He said the proposed waiver is not an attempt to bash teachers, and he noted that the district is home to the state's 2019 Teacher of the Year, Stacy McAdoo, and other renowned teachers.

He also noted that the waiver might not apply just to classroom teachers but also to principals.

"Maybe the problem is not in the classroom but in the culture of the school," he said.

The education commissioner discounted arguments by the association leaders that the waiver eliminates due process rights to fair treatment, including a hearing in which they can defend themselves against accusations of poor performance.

He said the grievance procedure in the tentative agreement remains unchanged from past years.

The commissioner told reporters that he was not worried that the removal of poor performing teachers would leave schools without people to fill the positions. He said there are teachers available to fill vacancies, although some of them may not be currently teaching.

Key said he has resisted "pressure" over the past three years to not even sign an agreement and discontinue recognizing the employee union as the contract bargaining agent for the Little Rock district employees. That was the step taken when the state took control of the Pulaski County Special School District in 2011.

"I've chosen willfully not to do that because of the leadership of the LREA at the time," he said and cited the association's work with former Superintendent Baker Kurrus and with Poore.

"I felt like we might get somewhere. But when I see these results that we got a few weeks ago and understand that something else is missing ... this is one of the impediments to moving forward. The fact that we cannot be agile and nimble in making changes at the classroom and school levels. Principals and schools need flexibility," he said.

Key directed Poore to propose changes in two sections of the tentative agreement. The first is to delete language from the recognition clause in the tentative agreement and restore the language in the clause from the 2017-18 agreement.

The deleted language would be, "The LRSD shall continue its recognition of the LREA throughout the term of this agreement and during negotiations for a successor agreement."

The restored language from the current professional negotiations agreement would be: "In accordance with Board Policy, this recognition of LREA will continue so long as it is 'deemed by the board of education to be in the best interest of the employees and the District.'"

Regarding the section of the tentative agreement on board authority, Key directed Poore to add a sentence to the 2017-18 agreement. That new sentence would be: [T]he LREA and LRSD acknowledge the district is under Level 5-Intensive Support pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated 6-15-2916, and agree to support a waiver of the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act only for schools receiving a grade of D or F under the Arkansas Public School Rating System.

Letter grades for LRSD schools
Letter grades for LRSD schools
Photo by Staton Breidenthal
State Education Commissioner Johnny Key said Tuesday that inconsistent achievement by Little Rock schools “troubles me greatly, and I would think it would trouble the entire community.”

Metro on 10/24/2018

Print Headline: Arkansas Education Commissioner sees merit in waiving teacher dismissal laws for some Little Rock schools


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  • RBear
    October 24, 2018 at 6:21 a.m.

    Reading through this article, I think there are opportunities across the board for improvement. The fact that Key can't cite but one example of a teacher termination making its way through the process should give him cause to examine the process if he's concerned about poor performing teachers. Just waiving away the process doesn't fix the problem and causes havoc in the teaching culture at a school. I've been in a company where that kind of culture existed and employee moral was at an all-time low. Changes in senior management corrected that problem and I understand the company is performing much better.
    Secondly, it sounds like some principles at these schools need some review on the process and use it effectively. Just saying you're blocked by the process means you don't really want to take the time to make it work for the teacher and are just looking for an out. Maybe LRSD should bring together a workshop of principals, teachers, and facilitators to discuss the process and ways to improve it. After all, the end game of effective teachers in the classroom is what everyone should be striving for.
    Finally, there's also a burden on the union to come to the table with solutions, not protections. Yes, you should be looking out for the teacher's best interest but for teachers who are performing and meeting expectations. Those that probably shouldn't be in the teaching profession shouldn't be shielded and it should be the union's responsibility to come to their aid in helping them improve in the classroom. Task forces within the union to be proactive with LRSD should be the norm, not an exception. If your only job is negotiating protections and pay, maybe you aren't the right organization to help teachers.
    It's not clear where this is going, but Key's optics pretty much suck in how he delivered this message. I would have expected more collaboration with Poore and others to help come up with a plan other than implement a waiver to all him to hire and fire at will. He's under pressure to fix the problem and this seems more like a band-aid than a solution. It's more about dog-whistling to the right wingers and attacking the union. Hmmm, sounds like he's setting the stage for charters to come swooping in. Good luck making that work.

  • Morebeer
    October 24, 2018 at 9:30 a.m.

    Perhaps all those D's and F's are the result, not of bad teaching, but having the children of affluent parents in private schools (about 10,000 kids attend private schools in Little Rock), and thousands more kids with engaged parents attending charter schools. That leaves these public schools with the students from poorer families with less engaged parents. The charter schools and private schools avoid taking students requiring special ed or with other learning disabilities, and those that need ESL classes. They don't have the specialized staff. I'm not against private schools or charter schools. Engaged parents are going to do what they believe is in the best interest of their kids, and no one can fault them for that. I suggest, however, that teaching the disadvantaged children in the public schools may require more resources than the teachers are given. LRSD is a wealthy school district, and it should be spending its money to create smaller classrooms staffed with teacher aides, perhaps a longer school day and school year, with summer programs to help kids retain learning. It should be tracking learning at the individual level, and intervening quickly when failure emerges. I maintain the money is there to do this.

  • PopMom
    October 24, 2018 at 11:25 a.m.

    The last thing that LRSD should do is have a workshop of those who are failing get together to discuss the problems. The LRSD needs to look at what better school systems are doing with similar student populations. I hate to bring this up again but Montgomery County, Maryland is one of the best school systems in the country. Other schools systems come up here and sit in on classes and sometime purchase the curriculum. Not only do the Asian kids do well, but the low income minority kids. Dontsuffer is correct that the struggling kids need smaller classes, teaching assistants, and reading specialists etc. One thing that the ADG hit upon last week was the truancy issue. I am commenting suggesting that the kids need longer days, years, and summer programs, but the first thing that needs to happen is that they need to physically be in school. The number of hours reading and performing math problems are crucial to a year by year improvement in skills. Things which Montgomery County does in addition to teaching assistants and reading specialists: (1) students will be flunked or held back if they miss too many days of school and do not master the material, (2) teachers receive a fair amount of training on the curriculum, (3) emphasis is on reading, writing and performing math problems instead of listening to lectures or watching movies, and (4) students are grouped in similar levels. For example, with respect to 3, when I was a student in history we would listen to lectures about important people in history and we memorized facts about these important figures. Now, there is more reading about how ordinary people lived in history and more writing of essays about these people. Even in science, more of the tests require written responses instead of multiple choice. Math classes involve less lecture and more working of problems. A teacher and teaching assistant will circle the class helping and reteaching those who do not understand how to do the problem. What LRSD needs is to bring in fresh Education students from top universities and seasoned professionals from top school districts with distressed populations. City government needs to crack down on truancy through social services. Schools need to work with social services in cracking down on truancy. Having many kids go to charter and private schools presents the opportunity of allowing more funds to target the at risk kids. They do not need a rich kid sitting beside them to learn; they just need strict teachers to make them work harder. When parents (or older kids) start getting fined or thrown in jail for truancy and when teachers stop passing kids forward who have not mastered the material, the LRSD will improve.

  • RBear
    October 24, 2018 at 1:54 p.m.

    PM disagree with some points and agree with others. If you push change down without discussion, you end up with even more dysfunction than you have today. Not sure what organizational change processes you've been through, but there are methods to the madness.

  • PopMom
    October 24, 2018 at 5:13 p.m.


    You have to change the processes, but you have to have leaders with plans. The leaders need to study what works elsewhere before discussing among those who only have worked in a failing system. I would send a delegation of administrators and teachers to good schools in communities with high populations of socioeconomically deprived kids. I would suggest Silver Spring, Maryland. They need to study why so many kids who go to Montgomery Blair High School go to college despite having parents who do not speak English or who are very poor.

  • NoUserName
    October 24, 2018 at 5:46 p.m.

    Last I looked, studies of early voucher programs showed disadvantaged public school kids who used vouchers to go to private schools did no better than they were already doing at public schoool. Why? Because those kids already had parents who care. THAT is likely the biggest predictor of success and/or failure. LRSD fails because the parents suck. Of course, LRSD board, when it existed, didn't help matters. THAT is why Montgomery County MD is successful.

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    October 24, 2018 at 10:46 p.m.

    Too busy screwing them now you want laws to not be able to fire them. DISTURBING