Whenever I move to a new state, I try to immerse myself in the politics of my new community. I try to answer questions like what is going on, what is a big concern, how do I feel about it, how can I help – essentially trying to engage on a local level and figuring out how to drive positive change. But regardless of where I am, I cannot help but keep an eye on Arkansas. After spending the better part of twenty-five years within its state lines, Arkansas will forever be an intrinsic part of my life.
I have been watching the discourse between Johnny Key, the Little Rock School District, and the Little Rock Education Association unfold over the past few weeks. Before I launch into the specifics of the current disagreement, I think it is best to first introduce these parties.
- Johnny Key: An engineer and business owner by trade, Key served in the Arkansas House of Representatives (2003-2009) and the Arkansas Senate (2009-2015) before being appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to succeed Tony Wood as the State Education Commissioner. It is important to note Key has no experience as a teacher. In order for him to become commissioner, the General Assembly had to change state law. Under the former law, Key would not have qualified for the job. It required a master’s degree and 10 years of experience, direct or indirect, as a teacher. The General Assembly conformed the position to his limited qualifications, which is insulting given his current crusade against teachers who actually meet their position requirements. Key also has a long history of crusading for the Walton Family Foundation vision of charter schools and school choice, which are often criticized as a perpetuation of school segregation under the guise of integration.
- Little Rock School District (LRSD): Currently helmed by Superintendent Mike Poore, the school district has been tied up in school performance negotiations with the Little Rock Education Association on a proposal that affects employment protections at 22 of the district schools. The contract with the union was set to expire on Oct. 31st, before receiving an extension until Nov. 14th to reach an agreement.
- Little Rock Education Association (LREA): The LREA has served as the union for teachers and education professionals in the LRSD since 1950. The current president is Teresa Knapp Gordon.
These are the key players, though dozens of teachers across the district have also lodged valid concerns during negotiations, either through LREA or independently.
So, what is the issue? As the deadline for the contract between LREA and LRSD approached, Commissioner Key turned down all proposals that did not allow him to waive protections provided by Arkansas’s Teacher Fair Dismissal Act (TFDA) for teachers at low-scoring schools. For the purposes of clarity, below is a brief rundown of the language of the TFDA.
- The TFDA applies to any person employed in an Arkansas public school district who is required to hold a teaching certificate from the Department of Education as a condition of employment. This can include teachers, principals, counselors, and specialists, though teachers seem to be the group in Commissioner Key’s narrow focus. While the TFDA covers a variety of issues, including automatic renewal of teaching contracts, position reassignment, and the procedures that guide these changes, the point of contention in these negotiations are on teacher termination.
- Under the TFDA, a teacher can only be terminated for the following reasons:) a districtwide reduction of staff; 2.) incompetent performance; 3.) conduct that materially interferes with the continued performance of his/her duties; 4.) repeated or material neglect of duty; or 5.) other just and reasonable cause. The reason(s) for termination must be identified in writing to the teacher.
- The TFDA provides for all teachers in the state an evaluation process, counseling, and improvement efforts before a firing.
Essentially, Commissioner Key is seeking the ability to fire teachers at low-scoring schools by removing the protections of the TFDA. The determination of what is a “low-scoring school” is based on state school performance rankings, which are largely based on standardized test scores. Commissioner Key wants to focus on D- and F-rated schools in the LRSD. He asserts that the low scores are a direct product of teacher quality, which was understandably met with pushback from teachers within the district.
Before I move on to discuss what the agreement made Tuesday night (11/13) means, I think it is pertinent to dissect why Key’s causal link between teacher quality and student performance is troublesome.
Firstly, we need to stop seeing students as teachers’ work products. We are doing a disservice to students if we see their performance on standardized tests as solely linked to teacher quality. Students are human beings, which seems obvious, but is often left out of the conversation and consideration of these discussions. There are racial and economic issues at the root of these scores that Commissioner Key refuses to address. Dr. Michael Mills, an associate professor in education at UCA, ran through the demographics and data two weeks ago and it is startling. Per data from the Arkansas Department of Education, there are no A-rated Arkansas schools with a majority of black students and with a majority of students classified as low-income. As for B-rated schools, there are only three in the state with a majority of black students and a majority of low-income students. Two of those three schools are in Little Rock School District (Gibbs and Williams). Dr. Mills goes on to do something that I absolutely love – he points out a problem AND offers an answer.
“The answer is simple in general terms: provide a more than decent wage for teachers, fix the dilapidated schools that our kids have to attend, and give schools, as well as local universities and community partners, the resources they need to help lift these students out of inadequate educational opportunity. Beyond a moral imperative, this is also the legal onus placed on the state by the Lakeview decision in the 90s.” *
*Note: The Lakeview decision Mills refers to is an Arkansas Supreme Court case which led to the subsequent overhaul of public school funding with the aim to be more fair and exact and to benefit all Arkansas students equally.
Secondly, we need to stop seeing education reform as an instant fix situation. Our school system is built upon decades of racial and social inequalities that have gone largely unaddressed. We cannot attempt to slap metaphorical band-aids on the problem and expect the system to heal itself. We also cannot use firings and recension of legal protections to attack these institutionalized issues. Commissioner Key contends he’d only use a “scalpel,” not an ax, in removing teachers; but a scalpel in the hand of an inexperienced surgeon can be just as damaging as an ax.
Finally, I’ve never understood the assumption that bad scores equate bad teachers. Yes, teachers should be accountable within the scope of their job, but why do we constructively limit that job to performing well on one test at the end of the school year? Teachers must teach students a broad scope of skills. It would be much more reciprocal to determine teacher performance through a similarly broad scope. Evaluations of teachers should include many elements besides state assessment scores, and there should be an identified, direct causation between the students’ total accomplishments for the year and teacher ratings.
Commissioner Key’s flawed logic aside, the LRSD and LREA did reach an agreement on the contract the night before the extended deadline terminated. The new agreement permits the Arkansas Department of Education to petition the State Board of Education to waive protections under the TFDA.
Some members of the LREA may consider this a victory because the protections are not automatically rescinded. But that victory rings hollow when you consider protections and due process are still vulnerable to teachers who merely chose to teach at low-ranking schools. The Commissioner is penalizing those who wish to work at schools he identifies as a problem. That just does not logically flow unless the Commissioner’s goal is not to increase school performance in the existing system but to replace it with his/Hutchinson’s/Walton’s charter school vision while simultaneously breaking the teacher’s union. In fact, there is more evidence to support the latter goal, as Commissioner Key has not once offered evidence that the firing process under the TFDA was difficult or unnecessarily burdensome. The Commissioner also took control of the district four years ago, essentially acting as the district’s school board. Key critiques the leadership within the schools, but does nothing to address his own poor performance.
Charter schools have such a buzz around them, but they do not implicitly cure the rampant racial and socioeconomic disparities that feed low-performance rankings. The only way charter schools work is if we stop underfunding and understaffing schools that we have constructively segregated. That same principle applies to public schools. The public asset privatization that defines charter schools is not necessary for LRSD’s success.
I love studying and discussing politics, so much so that I poured four years into a frustrating bachelor’s degree and now explore a variety of political topics on this blog for fun. However, the degree to which the school system in Little Rock, and Arkansas in general, has been torn asunder by politicization and privatization is abhorrent. Politics can and should be addressed in the realm of education by virtue of creating policies that ensure education is provided freely, equally, and fairly. But if we continue to bend to the political pressure of privatizing our school system without looking at deeper, systemic issues, we will fail both our teachers and our students.