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Last week the Little Rock School District released its list of failing schools--those with a letter grade of F. Some of the schools are the same as they were five years ago, and some of the schools are new to the F list.

For more than three decades, Little Rock has had far too many failing schools. When you look over this long span of time, you have to wonder what has been consistent in the school district.

It certainly hasn't been the superintendent. The number of school superintendents over 30 years is in the double digits.

It certainly doesn't seem to be governance. Whether it's local or state control, the state's largest school district still has failing schools.

So what has been consistent? Two things: 1. far too many poorly performing schools and 2. the teachers union.

On the new F list are two elementary schools that at one time were doing very well: Baseline and Meadowcliff. In fact, Baseline was one of the six schools whose poor performance triggered state control five years ago.

The state brought in Jonathan Crossley, a Teach for America standout who was Teacher of the Year in Arkansas, as its new principal. The school was reconstituted, which means they terminated the entire staff then hired new people, including teachers and staff, and offering those terminated the chance to re-apply.

Then Baker Kurrus, the superintendent at the time, gave Jonathan Crossley the freedom and flexibility to make decisions to improve student outcomes. He did it. But then later he left. And the school sank downward again, until now it is an F school.

Meadowcliff, like Baseline, serves mainly lower-income minority students. But it had an outstanding principal, Karen Carter. It was the first Little Rock school to experiment with teacher bonuses 14 years ago. The first year of the opportunity to earn bonuses, student test scores improved from the 18th percentile to the 28th percentile. It did very well again the next year as the Little Rock School District took over payment of the bonuses. Over the next two years, this bonus program spread to five of the 25 elementary schools in Little Rock.

The teachers' union didn't like the bonuses, probably because the money was earned by the teacher's performance rather than negotiated by the union. The teachers' union finally found a way to kill the bonus program. It elected a majority on the school board and replaced the reform-minded superintendent Roy Brooks by paying out the balance of his contract--costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Then the school board's majority ended the teacher bonus program. Karen Carter was moved to another school. And now this once-promising center of learning is an F school. It is sad to see this happen to the once-improving Meadowcliff school, and especially the low-income, minority students there who desperately need a better education.

Hall High School has 10 English-as-a-second-language classes, but recently had only one teacher who spoke Spanish. If you had the flexibility as principal, you would go out and find some good teachers who are bilingual, even if you have to pay them more. But this is the type of flexibility that is always opposed by the teachers' union.

John Bacon spent 13 years teaching and working in the Little Rock School District. He was an outstanding principal at Dunbar. He did so well he got promoted to principal of Hall High School. When he got there, he did what he had done at Dunbar: He met with each teacher and told them if they had problems, come see him and they would work to solve the problem.

But at Hall, the teachers' union heard about it and went to see him. They told him he could not meet with teachers one-on-one without a union representative at each meeting. John Bacon later moved to eStem where he is educating students selected by random lotteries in high-performing A and B schools.

He says there is nothing inherently wrong with the Little Rock School District. He says there are many great people there. But he says it is just too difficult to educate students if most of your flexibility is removed.

Too much flexibility has been removed through union contracts because some principal at some point might abuse his authority. And since people are human, someone will inevitably do that. But the answer is not to remove most of the authority of all principals just because some principal at some point might make a bad decision. We need common sense, not restrictive union contracts.

Little Rock is the only school district in Arkansas with a teachers' union. North Little Rock doesn't have one. Pulaski County doesn't have one. It is time for the Little Rock School District to try something new: join the rest of the state and educate our students without all the problems created by the union.

It is long overdue. The state board of education should vote to no longer recognize the teachers' union at its coming meeting. Then the district can finally get a real start on educating the next generation of students. And Little Rock can finally reach its potential.

Editorial on 10/08/2019

Print Headline: Bring back flexibility

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