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JOHN BRUMMETT: From mess to mess

by John Brummett | September 24, 2019 at 2:00 a.m.

The state Board of Education seems hell-bent on making a new kind of fine mess in the Little Rock School District.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, after five years of mostly pragmatic governing, indicated Monday that he will let the state board make that mess. The micromanager suddenly professed to be a punter.

There was the original mess in 1957, which has ebbed and flowed since.

Then there was a mess when the local district seemed unable five years ago to govern itself. There was a mess when the state took over the district, installed the heroic Baker Kurrus as superintendent and then dumped him because he, wanting to fix the regular public schools as assigned, resisted the board's rush to open competing charter schools.

There is the mess by which the state has run the school district for five years without making much evident difference.

Now the state board is embarking on a three-month discussion of a framework that restores local control only partially and otherwise seems to lay the groundwork to turn F-grade schools into charter-resembling schools. Those schools would stay under unspecified state or state-directed management while supported operationally by local services.

The dual governance also resembles racial segregation in that it would establish one kind of school management in a few black neighborhoods and another kind for everyone else.

Surely the state board hasn't thought that through. Yet the governor embraced the plan in a meeting with reporters in his office Monday, implying the state had no choice under the state Constitution. But the state does have a choice. After five years of its own ineptitude, it could become the local district's partner to target special aid to those needy schools, not its overlord.

As if that wasn't enough, the state board has blindsided everyone with nitroglycerine. It has left pending for its October meeting a motion to de-certify the Little Rock classroom teachers' union. That likely would cause a strike and undoubtedly fuel resentments.

Michael Poore, the hardworking state-appointed superintendent replacing Kurrus, pleaded with the board last week not to cause the "disarray" that would surely result from board member Sarah Moore's motion to de-certify the teachers' union. Moore, notably, formerly worked on Hutchinson's gubernatorial staff.

Poore reminded the board that the state already had waived the teacher fair-dismissal law for Little Rock and that he and the teachers' association had managed to work through that. He said it might be that the state board was no longer listening to him. If so, he said, he'd need to "take stock."

That could signal that Poore would leave as superintendent if the board burdened him and the district with this ill-advised affront to teachers.

By the way, there is informed speculation that a couple of Little Rock's existing "F" schools may move out of that status when new test scores are released soon, but that a couple of others might slip down to "F."

Does the state board intend to flit around year-to-year imposing charter models wherever the latest report cards take it?

Charter pop-ups and unnecessarily provoked teachers--is that the state plan?

Maybe a better idea would be this four-pronged design:

First, give up the conservative salivation for de-certifying the union, because that would cause more disruptive upheaval than any amount of good that conservatives seem to think it would do.

Second, return the district to reconstituted local control in one piece, not one that segregates.

Third, behave as the local district's partner in providing special help to the neighborhoods of the failing schools.

Fourth, try to keep Poore as the calming transitional superintendent, at least, rather than leaving the impression that the state board will keep a superintendent in Little Rock only until he threatens to have success without charter schools or union-busting.

I can't say whether Hutchinson is micromanaging this nonsense. But I can say for sure that he could stop it with a phone call.

His disingenuous position Monday morning was, hey, not his deal.

If the call is not made, then we could well enter a new phase of madness in the Little Rock schools.

And I would need to begin writing a humiliating correction of columns about this governor's pragmatic and moderate instincts.

By the way: The state board pretty clearly violated the Freedom of Information Act by a series of private one-on-one meetings on that framework, getting the deal effectively done without public input. A state Supreme Court case styled Harris v. City of Fort Smith says city directors violated the law by a similar ploy.

Finally: There are indications the Little Rock schools' enrollment count, to be completed next month, will show a small gain of 100 or so students. That would reverse a trend of declining enrollment and would have occurred amid new charter school seats in the district. The state should nourish such meager progress, not blow it up.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 09/24/2019

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