For many voters, the election of a new Little Rock School Board is about restoring local control after five years of state control. But a far more important outcome is whether we will have union control of the school board again.
Obviously this is important to the union, since the election is almost its last stand for teacher-union control in Arkansas schools. Most school districts in Arkansas that once had teachers' unions no longer have them.
There are a number of well-meaning voters and candidates that think union control of the school district is best. And there are well-meaning voters and candidates who believe returning control of the school board to the unions will ensure more failure for the Little Rock schools.
The teachers' union certainly serves a purpose, and that purpose is to put all teachers, the strong and the weak, first. Teachers' interest is certainly important. But for Little Rock schools to succeed, students have to be put first--ahead of the interest of the teachers' union.
The failure of Little Rock schools over the years its not due to a lack of money. The district routinely spends more than $300 million a year in operating expenses, and has just built a $100 million high school in southwest Little Rock. The problem is not just dysfunctional families, as shown by the successful charter schools in Little Rock that have taken low-income, minority kids and proven that they, like all other students, have a brain and can learn and excel in the right environment. So what is the problem?
We believe the problem is placing the interest of the teachers' union ahead of students. Here is some history to support this claim:
Back in 2004, a pilot program was started with private funding to try to help low-income, minority kids improve academically. It was started at Meadowcliff Elementary in southwest Little Rock, where mostly low-income minority kids were far behind the rest of students in the district.
The program was to reward teachers with bonuses for each student's academic improvement. After the first year, it was very successful, with students testing at the 25th percentile in the fall and improving to the 35th percentile in the spring on a national test.
It was expanded the next year to include another southwest elementary school, Wakefield, also serving primarily low-income and minority students. The students there went from the 13th percentile in the fall to the 32nd percentile in the spring. According to a University if Arkansas study, these programs were very successful.
With the help of more private foundation funding, the third year it was expanded into a total of five elementary schools, including the first two and three more: Geyer Springs, Mabelvale, and Romine. All were serving at-risk student populations.
The program got national attention, from The Wall Street Journal to a delegation from Nashville, Tenn., coming to watch it in action. But despite the fact that this was providing hundreds of thousands of dollars for bonuses to teachers, the teachers' union adamantly opposed it. The union finally found a way to stop it--and that was to elect a majority of the school board. Once they did in 2007, they killed the program.
Before the union got control of the school board, Little Rock hired a new superintendent, Roy Brooks, who had been successful in Florida schools. He did an audit of the central office, where there were 400 employees. An outside consulting firm told him they were overstaffed, and the schools would run more efficiently if he reduced the number to 300. He did.
This angered the teachers' union, and once they got control of the school board, they tried to fire him. When the courts wouldn't allow his dismissal without stating a cause, the union-controlled board bought out his contract for more than $600,000.
One of the greatest problems with a teachers' union is that it makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to terminate a poorly performing teacher. This leads to lots of problems, including high teacher absenteeism.
In fact, the history at Hall High school shows teacher absenteeism on any given day would run some 10 percent, and on Fridays it would typically run 20 percent. Even a good principal cannot terminate teachers who are habitually absent because of the union contract. And the ones who suffer are the students who constantly have substitute teachers.
Another example: In a recent year at Hall High, out of 10 classrooms teaching English as a second language, only one of the teachers could speak Spanish. As per the union contract, the principal didn't have the flexibility, like paying more if necessary, to find teachers who spoke Spanish. No wonder Hall High was given an F rating by the state and considered a failing school.
And Hall High was not alone. In school after school with struggling students, the results were the same. It was this type of academic distress that forced the state to take over the school district.
In the history of America, unions served a great purpose. There were often tremendous abuses of employees in many industries. But that was before so many government reforms, including wage and hour laws, unemployment compensation, occupational health and safety regulations, and laws outlawing discrimination in hiring and promotion.
These reforms cemented a lot of the protections that unions had championed. But once the government required what the unions had negotiated, there was less need for unions. As a result, union membership as a percent of the workforce in America has been declining for years. Except for teachers' unions. And teachers' unions can often retain their numbers and dues by getting control of school boards, where they can then negotiate with themselves.
If Little Rock is to have any future as a city, it has to improve its public schools.This has been done in other cities, and it can be done in Little Rock. To do it, there needs to be an independent school board, not beholden to the union or anyone else.
The board needs to be able to have a superintendent who can hire and fire principals, and principals who can hire and fire teachers. If any particular school continues to fail, the principal needs to be replaced. If the school district continues to fail, the school superintendent needs to be replaced, and the school board needs to have the independence to do it.
If Little Rock schools are to succeed, they must have accountability for results. They must have transparency so parents know how well each school is performing and improving. And if a school still fails, students need to be given the choice to attend a better public school. The teachers' union is opposed to all three.
Who should you vote for to represent you on the Little Rock School District Board? If you want the unions to gain control of the school district again, below is a list of all the candidates endorsed by the Little Rock teachers' union. Also below are candidates we have interviewed who we do not believe will be beholden to the union, and will represent students first.
The future of Little Rock is in your hands. And your vote.
Tommy Branch, Zone 3
Stuart Mackey, Zone 5
FranSha' Anderson, Zone 6
Norma Jean Johnson, Zone 7
Jeff Wood, Zone 9
Michael Mason, Zone 1
Evelyn Callaway, Zone 3
Leigh Ann Wilson, Zone 4
Ali Noland, Zone 5
Vicki Hatter, Zone 6
Ryan Davis, Zone 7
Greg Adams, Zone 8
Kieng B. Vang-Dings, Zone 9