An Attempt to Resegregate Little Rock, of All Places

A battle over local control in a city that was the face of integration shows the extent of the new segregation problem in the U.S.

A photo of Little Rock Central High School
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

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.

It was a shockingly brazen proposal in the town that holds a rarified place in the collective national memory over the fight for school integration. Less than a lifetime ago, the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School became a nationwide story. On September 4, 1957, three years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate facilities were inherently unequal, nine black students attempting to integrate Central High School were met by a mob, and the state National Guard. Governor Orval Faubus had declared a state of emergency and deployed troops to block the students’ entrance. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered federal troops into the city to keep the peace and ensure desegregation. And now, in 2019, the state had proposed a plan that many residents argued amounted to an attempt to codify separate and unequal schools in the city.

School districts across the country have been resegregating. The number of students attending intensely segregated schools—those where 90 percent or more of students are nonwhite—has more than tripled since 1988, according to a 2019 report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project. “Segregation is expanding in almost all regions of the country,” Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor who led the study, said in a release. “Little has been done for a generation.” But the fact that resegregation was on the table here in Little Rock, where the struggle for integration is such an iconic part of the city’s history, makes that fact strikingly clear.

Just before Zook gaveled the October meeting into order, I turned to an employee who had worked at the State Board of Education for three years. “Is it usually this packed?” I asked him. He laughed, and told me that there were typically about 20 people at state-board meetings, a far cry from the more than 100 bodies packed into the room and the untold more gathered outside. Then he pointed to the bottom of an agenda sheet. “Those four items,” he said—a discussion of the state of Little Rock’s schools, their ratings, the plan for how they would be governed, and what that governance would look like—“that’s why all these people are here.” The question of school integration had mobilized Little Rock 62 years ago; the same question, 62 years later, had mobilized it in the opposite direction.

The tensions over the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock did not leave when the news cameras did. Official desegregation and actual integration are fundamentally different things, and the latter became more difficult as the makeup of the city began to change. Residential segregation in the city has intensified since the ’50s, as white families have fled the majority-black south and southwest parts of the city for North Little Rock. Locals note the divide at I-630. The schools north of that road tend to have more resources and more white students, and fare better on state assessments. The schools that are south of it tend to have more black students, and score lower on the state ratings.

As Alana Semuels wrote for The Atlantic in 2016, the fight over segregation in Little Rock’s public-school system looks different now than it did in 1957. It’s not a question of whether students of different races can go to school with one another, but whether they ever will. “What’s stunning about today’s methods of avoiding integration is that they are, by and large, legal, but they nevertheless leave black students stuck in schools that are separate and unequal,” Semuels wrote. The students south of I-630 are still left with less.

Then, in 2014, Little Rock elected a majority-black school board for the first time. It made sense; at the time, two out of every three students in the Little Rock School District were black, according to a University of Arkansas database. And the two newly elected school-board members had focused their campaigns on addressing the district’s inequality. But before they had a chance to do so, the local board’s power was taken away. A few months after the election, on January 28, 2015, the Arkansas State Board of Education voted to take control of the Little Rock School District.

“They believed that the state could offer some more stability and bring some more healing to the Little Rock School District,” Anika Whitfield, one of the co-chairs of the education advocacy organization Grassroots Arkansas, told me. With the takeover, the argument for local control of public schools had been turned on its head. Typically, conservatives argue that more local control is better—but here, a conservative-led state board was advocating for top-down intervention.

But stability did not follow. “Within the first year of the takeover, we had four superintendents,” Whitfield said. When the state took over the district, six schools were failing its assessment; the state’s 2019 data show that eight now are. After nearly five years, the state had not accomplished the fundamental goals of the takeover. Some residents of Little Rock were frustrated, but there was little they could do. When a locally elected school board is failing, members of the community can vote them out, Ali Noland, a parent in the district, told me. But when the school board consists of state-appointed officials, the same oversight is not possible. The relative feeling of powerlessness unified the community, Noland and other parents, elected officials, and advocates I spoke with told me. Black, brown, and white parents—wealthy and low-income families—all coalesced around the idea that they should have local control of their public schools.

Then at a special board meeting in September of this year, as the five-year deadline to relinquish control of the schools from the state’s hands was approaching, the state board released its plan to return some control to the district. The plan created a tiered system. Schools that were rated as failing would operate under “different leadership” from the rest of the schools in the district, though it was unclear what exactly that meant. Only the top-rated schools in the district would be led by an elected school board. Each of the ‘F’-rated schools, save for one, was south of I-630.

The plan had been kept secret until the morning of the meeting, and advocates were furious. “We deserve one district, not a three-tiered district, not a segregated district, not a district with two leaderships," Vicki Hatter, a Little Rock–district parent, told the Associated Press. “We deserve one district, one full district, and a duly elected school board.”

Mayor Frank Scott Jr., the first elected black mayor of Little Rock, stepped in with a compromise: a way out of seemingly indefinite state control, and out of the tiered system the state board was proposing. He suggested a transition period to complete local control. Under Scott’s plan, a temporary board consisting of both state and city officials would oversee the entire district from January 2020 until November 2020, when a school-board election would be held; at that point, the locally elected board would reassume control of the district. Crucially, the temporary board would not be allowed to make any “consequential decisions,” Scott told me.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson appreciated the mayor’s input, and noted that a change to the plan the board had proposed was not off the table. Johnny Key, the state’s education secretary, said he believed the mayor’s proposal to be a “thoughtful approach to a very difficult issue.” But several advocates believed that it did not return the district to local control fast enough.

At the state board’s October meeting, both Scott’s plan and the state’s plan were on the agenda. “The decisions that they’re making are concerning the futures of our most precious assets—and that’s the students of our school district,” Scott told me the day before the meeting. Judging by the overflowing crowd that showed up, the community agreed on the stakes.

The night before the board meeting, more than 2,000 people gathered outside Central High School for a candlelight vigil. Organizers had brought 1,000 candles, but quickly ran out. They sang, chanted, and swayed. Videos of the event went viral on Twitter.

Inside the boardroom the next day, the air-conditioning fought against the number of people in the room, many of them wearing red shirts reading We Support #OneLRSD or The Second Little Rock Crisis. After a lengthy presentation about the condition of some of Little Rock’s failing schools and a brief discussion of Mayor Scott’s plan, Chad Pekron, a lawyer whom Hutchinson had appointed to the state board in July, began to speak. Before the public-comment portion of the meeting, Pekron wanted to address the state board’s proposal for a tiered school district.

“There’s a significant role for the state to play in the schools, and in other schools in the state,” Pekron said, explaining that the state is obligated to ensure that schools within its borders are “equitable and adequate” under the law. He spoke slowly and reservedly; this seemed to have been weighing on him. “I don’t think we can accomplish what we want to for students as long as it’s this going on,” he said. “It’s us versus you. That’s not going to help the students.” So he offered a motion: To return the district to unified local control “under a framework of state support for the schools that really need it.” The audience applauded as Zook banged her gavel for order, but the cheering was tentative. Pekron’s proposal sounded like a gesture toward goodwill with the community, but it was also confusing. What did “state support” really mean, for instance?

What exactly the new plan would look like, and how much the community would be involved in its implementation, was still up for debate. For the next hour, advocates, teachers, parents, and politicians stood to deliver comments. Many people said Pekron’s motion seemed to address most of their concerns. The motion passed unanimously, and when it did, there was a pause in the room followed by more hesitant clapping. The plan was, at least, a step back from the one that would have segregated the district. But there had been little assurance that residents’ voices would be heard in conversations about transitioning control of the school district back to the community.

As quickly as some goodwill had been gained by Pekron’s motion, though, it was lost. The board’s next agenda item was a surprise motion that had been tabled at the previous board meeting. As the September meeting was winding to a close, Sarah Moore, one of the state-board members, had offered a motion to derecognize the teachers’ union, the Little Rock Education Association. It was the kind of consequential decision that Mayor Scott’s plan would theoretically have blocked, and the kind that local residents were concerned the board would continue to make under the tiered system.

The tabled motion was brought back to life at the October meeting, and the board pressed ahead with it as the audience shouted protests that the members had not heard public comment on the matter. Zook ordered a vote to derecognize the teachers’ union as the bargaining entity for the school district. One by one, each board member voted yes. The room was a swirl of anger and confusion. Just like that, any sense that the community and the board were on the same page was gone. As the next agenda item was raised, about personnel-policy committees, Ali Noland used her scheduled public-comment time to speak on the teachers’ union instead.

“You just ceased recognition of the LREA without any additional public comment,” Noland said, “and without explaining to anyone in this community why this is not an issue that can be left to be decided by a democratically elected school board.” Zook said that a decision about the union needed to be made by the end of the month. But that explanation didn’t satisfy Noland. “Please explain to the press and the public why you are taking these actions,” she continued.

Zook paused for a moment. Then she moved on to the next issue on the agenda. “Shame!” a member of the audience exclaimed, and then another. Zook summoned the police to the front of the room.

“Somebody have some integrity,” someone said.

“This is absolutely shameful,” another man said as he left the room.

Zook gaveled as the crowd began to jeer at the board. “I have some new business if—” Zook was cut off. She paused.

“We are your business,” someone yelled.

“This meeting is adjourned,” Zook said, as the crowd erupted. For a full minute they stood and chanted, “Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.” People began filing out of the auditorium. The board members packed up. Cameramen moved in to get a better shot.

Suffice it to say the rift between the state board and residents of Little Rock was not mended during the October meeting, and the future of the school district is unclear. What is clear is that once again, the city of Little Rock has found itself in the middle of a national struggle over school segregation. But this time, the angry demonstrators are fighting for things to be fair.