LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—When Diane Zook, the chair of Arkansas’ State Board of Education, banged her gavel to bring the afternoon meeting into order on October 10, every seat in the cramped boardroom was filled. Nearly every inch of paint on the wall had been covered by a body before the fire marshal, concerned about capacity, ushered those standing out of the room. The crowd spilled into the overflow areas in a wave. Sixty-two years after the world watched Little Rock struggle to desegregate its schools, history seemed to be repeating itself.
Nearly five years ago, in January 2015, the state of Arkansas assumed control of Little Rock’s public schools. At the time, six of the schools in the district had “chronically underperformed” on state exams regularly for several years; 22 superintendents had passed through the district in 32 years, creating a sense of instability. The state gives a letter-grade assessment to every public school, which is based on a combination of state-exam results and other metrics, such as graduation rates. Because of that instability, and the handful of ‘F’-rated schools, the state believed the best way to steady the district was to take it over.
Legally, the state can take over a school district for a maximum of five years. For Little Rock, that deadline is rapidly approaching. To prepare, the state board came up with a plan that would return limited local control to Little Rock School District. The community would hold elections for a local school board, but the newly elected board would only be responsible for the schools that had not received an ‘F’ grade. The “failing” schools, which all have high minority populations, would still be under state control. The board’s plan would effectively divide the district by race.