LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Little Rock's mayor on Monday proposed returning local control to the city's schools after a state plan to only grant limited authority sparked fears the district could revert to a racially divided, "separate but equal" system 62 years after the desegregation of Central High School.
Mayor Frank Scott proposed forming a temporary school board appointed by the city and state to run the district from January until a local board is elected in November 2020. Arkansas has been in control of the 23,000-student district since January 2015, when the district was taken over because of low test scores at several schools.
"We want full and complete local control of all Little Rock School District schools," Scott said at a news conference at city hall with several city board members. "Any plan that separates any schools from LRSD denies agency for the very students, teachers and families who must take ownership of their schools if they are to thrive."
Scott asked the state Board of Education to take up the proposal when it meets this week, and said he also has discussed it with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Education Secretary Johnny Key. The state board last month approved a plan to return only limited local control to the district, with a local board elected in November 2020. Under the state's plan, several predominantly minority schools labeled as failing by the state would be run under "different leadership" than the board. The plan has prompted comparisons to the 1957 crisis over Little Rock Central's desegregation, with opponents saying it would effectively create two districts divided along racial lines.
Hutchinson stopped short of saying whether he supported Scott's proposal. He said the state board and education department would carefully evaluate the mayor's comments.
"It is always good news when the city is supportive of the school district," Hutchinson, a Republican, said in a statement. "While the state has the ultimate responsibility under our constitution, it takes many partners for a school district to be successful."
Scott detailed the proposal three days before the state board takes up a plan to end the local teachers' union's bargaining power. Scott said he believed any major decisions such as the union's bargaining power should be left to the local board elected next year.
Under Scott's proposal, the schools rated "F" by the state would be operated by the district under a memorandum of understanding with the state and the city and would be known as "community schools." They would include additional services aimed at students and their families to address poverty, including literacy programs and free pre-kindergarten.
Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield said Scott's proposal would ensure the state is helping the failing schools without taking away local control.
"We want it to be a position of support, rather than supplanting," said Chesterfield, a critic of the state's takeover of the district. "I think what they're doing now is supplanting the authority of the local community."
Little Rock Education Association President Teresa Knapp Gordon said she appreciates Scott's call for local control but said the plan falls short by keeping the state involved in the district.
"Keeping (the state) involved, we feel, is not a complete return to local control," she said.
Arkansas Board of Education Chairwoman Diane Zook said the state's plan provides for the type of partnerships Scott proposed.
"We're calling for a partnership and how his would differ from that, I don't really know," she said.