The site of struggle to defend unions and public education has moved quickly from Chicago to Little Rock.
The 1,800-member Little Rock Education Association began preparing for a potential strike after the Arkansas State Board of Education ended recognition of the union. Their demands: return collective bargaining rights to LREA, give full local control of the school district back to the people of Little Rock, and provide education support professionals with raises that were being negotiated at the time that the union was decertified.
After five years of state control, the State Board of Education was ready to return local control to the people of Little Rock next year, but only to those schools that no longer had failing grades in the state’s testing-based accountability system. These were the schools in the whitest and richest neighborhoods. The schools in the poorest neighborhoods, with the most Black students, would remain under state control. For students, staff, and parents, this means that their voices are not part of decision-making.
“We keep yo-yoing back and forth,” says Stacey McAdoo, a communication and college readiness teacher at Central High School and the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, “with the district being in the hands of a few people that we didn’t elect, and it just feels really, really wrong. Even if their intention is not to cause harm, that is the way it feels—and we keep saying this and it feels that they are simply not listening or they do not care.”
In 1957, Little Rock’s Central High School was the site of the famous battle for school integration, in which President Eisenhower had to call in the U.S. Army to protect nine Black high school students as they attended the all-white school. In 1958—called the lost year—the governor closed the school rather than allow it to be integrated.
McAdoo says this history is still an everyday presence at the school. “I could not teach at Central had it not been for the people who fought for desegregation,” she says. “That history is always on my mind.”
Led by the LREA, community members mobilized this October to protest what they identified as the re-segregation of the Little Rock schools. Banners reading “Separate is not equal—one district for all students” were hung on the highway overpass that divides the Black neighborhoods from the white neighborhoods. Thousands turned out for a candlelight vigil to insist that the state return local control to the entire district.
“Everybody is mad,” said LREA President Teresa Knapp Gordon. “People are tired of the state saying that our district schools are failing.”
Kimberley Crutchfield, a sociology and psychology teacher at Central High, says that the community—both Black and white—is united in defending Little Rock public schools. “The majority of teachers are white at Central,” says Crutchfield. “It warms my heart going to Central and seeing how passionate and ready we are to stand up for our students—and the white students are right there, too.”
Following the protests before and during a state board meeting in October, the state rescinded its proposal to divide control over the school district, and backed the return of local control to a school board to be elected in 2020.
Minutes later, though, they voted to end the LREA’s right to bargain for the teachers of Little Rock. LREA is the last teachers’ union in Arkansas with a collective bargaining agreement. Removing union recognition also ended contract negotiations that were happening with education support professionals, who are also represented by the LREA.
Charter Schools Encroach
Meanwhile, a draft memorandum of understanding among the state, city, and district actually delays return of local control, even after the election of a new school board in Little Rock. Instead, the state would name an advisory board that would review and be able to override decisions of the elected school board.
The memorandum talks about bringing the community school model to Little Rock. Community schools provide resources for students and families beyond academics, including support for housing, mental health, immigration services, and other needs—the types of demands that Chicago teachers and school staff recently fought for and won in their strike.
But Little Rock educators say the community schools model proffered in the MOU is just a front for bringing more charters into the district. “The community schools they talk about in the MOU don’t look like any community school I have ever heard of,” says Knapp Gordon. “If they had wanted community schools, they would have asked for our help.”
The MOU also calls for closing up to 11 neighborhood schools and opening, instead, several large K-8 schools. The trick here is that state law gives charter schools first refusal of unoccupied public schools—so closing the neighborhood schools opens space for charters.
“I do feel that they are trying to charterize the LRSD like what happened in New Orleans and disenfranchise people and make a separate school system out of the areas that are primarily Black and Latino,” says McAdoo.
Money from the Walton family—the founders of Arkansas-based Walmart and the richest family in the country—feeds the privatization and union-busting effort, while Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson calls the shots, according to educators I spoke with. The Waltons also fund the Arkansas State Teachers Association, an astroturf organization set up to draw educators away from the LREA and the Arkansas Education Association, the state National Education Association affiliate—the actual union.
In the midst of strike preparations within the LREA, the ASTA sent an email blast out about why it was both wrong and dangerous to strike and has even set up an alternate GoFundMe page to counter the LREA’s strike support page.
“I think it backfired on them,” says Jenni White, an elementary school teacher. “There were outright lies and misrepresentations. Most union people know who funds that organization. We’ve seen Michele Ballentine [executive director of the ASTA] go in front of the state board and say we should be taken over by the state board.”
In spite of these efforts, the community has been there to support the LREA. “Even the people from the predominantly white suburbs are coming out,” says Crutchfield. On October 30, 7,000 high school students in the 23,000 student district staged a sickout in support of their educators. Knapp Gordon says that the student sickouts “really encouraged educators. They realized they should stand up if students were willing to stand up.”
Teachers at Central High School began working to rule this week, performing no duties and working no hours beyond what’s in their contract. Across the district schools also held walk-ins beginning on November 6, where educators, students and parents gathered outside prior to the opening bell and walked in together as a show of solidarity.
On the first day of walk-ins, teachers were ecstatic about the experience and the response from school officials. “I loved ours,” said White. “I saw people come out who had refused to be involved. We chanted the school chant that we teach the kids.”
The union has plans for escalating actions until its demands are met. “We will do whatever it takes to protect our children,” said Knapp Gordon. In the meantime, the union is getting calls from non-members who want to join. “I know 10 people who have joined just since this happened,” Crutchfield said.
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