Public schools in Arkansas are currently governed by two contradictory sections of the same law, which are about to be pitted against each other in the Little Rock School District (LRSD):
How did we get into this contradictory mess?
In 1999, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law called the Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment, and Accountability Program (ACTAAP) established sanctions for schools and districts found to be in "academic distress." "Reconstitution" (as used throughout the ACTAAP) was defined as "a reorganization intervention in the administrative unit or governing body of a public school district, including without limitation the suspension, reassignment, replacement, or removal of a current superintendent or the suspension, removal, or replacement of some or all of the current school board members, or both."
ACTAAP was still in effect when the Arkansas Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) seized control of the LRSD in 2015. At that time, LRSD was not classified as a district in "academic distress." It had been seized because six of its 48 schools were, individually, classified as being in "academic distress." However, in 2017, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 930 of 2017, which repealed ACTAAP and replaced it with the Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act (AESAA.) AESAA abolished the term "academic distress," and established the current, five levels of district support. The SBoE immediately used the "state controlled" status of LRSD as justification for categorizing LRSD in Level 5 - Intensive Support.
When AESAA introduced the concept of "exit criteria" for Level 5 school districts in 2017, it also introduced the possibility of state control extending beyond the five-year limit, if districts failed to meet the criteria for exiting Level 5.
Arkansas citizens and the elected Arkansas legislature do not want indefinite state control of districts like LRSD. When Senator Kim Hammer attempted to formalize an extension of state control with SB 668 of 2019, his bill failed. It failed in the Senate, but the vote was expunged, so the bill went back to the Senate Education Committee for interim study while the legislature adjourned sine die, ending the 2019 legislative session. Watch for its return in 2021, but in the meantime, here we are.
ACTAAP's original, five-year deadline for annexing, consolidating, or reconstituting the LRSD is next month. However, LRSD cannot be annexed or consolidated with its neighbor, Pulaski County Special School District, due to federal desegregation requirements. That leaves us with "reconstitution," which is no longer defined in the Arkansas Code.
According to the definition of "reconstitution" that was in effect when LRSD entered state control, the SBoE has already reconstituted LRSD three times:
The SBoE already knew its three previous reconstitutions of LRSD had failed to improve students' growth scores on the ACT-Aspire before it established the "exit criteria" for LRSD to exit Level 5 - Intensive support in February 2019. Thus, when the SBoE picked ACT-Aspire growth scores as the primary quantitative criterion for LRSD to exit state control, no reasonable person could believe LRSD stood a chance of succeeding. LRSD teachers only had two months (not five years, as clearly intended by our elected legislature in AESAA) between the adoption of these criteria and the day their students took this test. "Failure" was inevitable.
We have become guinea pigs for the unelected political appointees at the State Board of Education while they test how far we are willing to let them take AR Code § 6-15-2916 before it bumps up against the five-year time limit in AR Code § 6-15-2917. Our elected Senators stopped Kim Hammer's legislative attempt to extend state control in LRSD, but we don't have elected representatives on the SBoE.
Keep the "public" in public education. Join the Education Defense League today.
UPDATE Jan. 4, 2020: Attorney Amy LaFont has opted not to utilize the Education Defense League of Arkansas as a fundraising agent for the Reynolds v. LRSD case described in this post. Therefore, both the introduction and conclusion of this post have been edited to remove references to EDLA.
Attorney Amy LaFont has filed a case in federal court under the First Amendment, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, on behalf of two dedicated special education teachers who advocated for students' rights at Hamilton Alternative Learning Environment (ALE.)
The Education Defense League of Arkansas (EDLA) understands that there are many educators and employees -- similar to these two teachers -- who have experienced retaliation for advocating for students in LRSD. Part of EDLA's mission is to support cases like this one.
Here is more information about the case:
James Richard Reynolds v. LRSD, Supt. Mike Poore, Frederick Fields, Cassandra Steele, and Willie Vinson: 4:18-cv-00842-BRW
James "Richard" Reynolds was a special education (SPED) teacher in LRSD from 1996-2015. He ran the Day Treatment program at Henderson Middle School for many years and then moved to Hamilton ALE. LRSD's ALE program primarily serves students who are identified as "black" and "two or more races." Reynolds' students were mostly black students with special needs.
Since SPED is governed by federal law, SPED compliance requires diligent record-keeping and specific student-to-teacher ratios. Neither LRSD district administrators nor the State of Arkansas have the authority to overrule federal SPED laws.
Nevertheless, according to this lawsuit, LRSD practiced shoddy record-keeping with its SPED students. They arrived in Reynolds' ALE classroom without due process from their home schools, without documentation of their 504 accommodations, without having been appropriately evaluated by their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams, and without regard for whether or not Reynolds' class was already full.
For years, Richard Reynolds reported that his ALE classes exceeded federal maximum numbers of SPED students. He spoke in meetings, wrote emails (which you can read in the lawsuit's exhibits,) communicated regularly with the Arkansas Department of Education, and carefully maintained records of every effort he made to get the problem fixed so that his (mostly black) students (with special needs) could be adequately served by their school district. The teachers' union filed a grievance on behalf of these same children. Nothing worked.
This lawsuit explains that when the state took over LRSD in 2015, Richard Reynolds hoped the Arkansas Department of Education would finally hold the long-term district administrators of LRSD accountable for their extensive failures to follow state and federal laws on behalf of the district's most marginalized students. Instead, in the five years since the state takeover, the ADE has left the same administrators in charge of SPED and ALE. According to current ALE teachers, the state has not even updated the operating systems on LRSD's antique computers -- let alone the operating standards for the program as a whole.
Ms. LaFont has filed Richard Reynolds' case under the First Amendment, because "Mr. Reynolds’s interests in speaking on issues of public concern regarding the illegalities and discriminations in the LRSD’s special education delivery outweighed the School District’s legitimate interests in avoiding workplace disruptions due to his protected speech." LaFont also asserts that Reynolds' speech "occurred in the manner, time, and places appropriate and even designated by the District for such speech."
However, the implications of this lawsuit go far beyond one teacher's protected speech.
Careful reading of Richard Reynolds' complaint and its exhibits suggests that neither LRSD administrators nor the State of Arkansas have met state or federal requirements for serving SPED students for at least 10 years. Moreover, as the complaint asserts, "By falsely representing to the state and federal governments that Plaintiff’s classroom complied with requirements for students with disabilities, over the course of over a decade, the Little Rock School District unlawfully obtained many thousands of dollars."
Those "many thousands of dollars" are our taxes being misallocated. Those children are our children. This state government is the one we put in office.
Although EDLA is no longer raising money to develop this, specific case, supporting litigation that protects teachers' First Amendment rights remains one of EDLA's primary goals.
AOn December 3, 2019, EDLA's Mission Coordinator, Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay, appeared before Judge Wendell Griffen for a hearing in her libel and defamation lawsuit filed by former LRSD principal Yaa Appiah-McNulty. Judge Griffen invited AR Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to opine regarding the constitutionality of Arkansas' anti-SLAPP statute, since Griffen believes it violates the separation of powers.
On December 2, 2019, Amelia LaFont (who was, at that time, affiliated with EDLA) was granted the right to consolidate two existing cases into one. The actions were filed on behalf of LRSD teachers under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violations of Plaintiff’s First Amendment Rights of Free Speech; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, and tortious interference with contract. The next deadline is December 16, 2019.
On November 22, 2019, EDLA-affiliated attorney Chris W. Burks made news when he filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the racially disproportionate effects of suspensions and school-based arrests in LRSD high schools. Read more...
On September 9, 2019, EDLA-affiliated attorney Matthew Campbell made news when he filed a Complaint for Violation of the Arkansas Whistle-Blower Act on behalf of an LRSD assistant principal who reported irregularities in the management of federal money in after-school and summer tutoring programs. Read more...
The Little Rock School District (LRSD) has a venerable history of depending on lawsuits to test, implement, and enforce education-related laws. Without the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine would not have had federal troops to guard them as they entered Central High School in 1954. Without Delores Clark v. The Board of Education of LRSD, the Federal Housing Act of 1949 and subsequent "redlining" might have guaranteed a resegregation of LRSD before integration ever really began. Without the desegregation cases from 1982-2014, LRSD facilities and funding might have gone unscrutinized, maintaining a harmful inequality from one school to another.
Now is the time to use the power of the court system to write the next page in history.
Just because we have laws to protect children, teachers, whistleblowers, and stakeholders in the public education system of Arkansas doesn't mean those laws are being enforced. Because of proliferating waivers of education-related laws (currently 9,997 waivers in effect) our statutes & standards have become like Swiss cheese: full of holes, and somewhat stinky. For the laws that remain, Arkansas Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) depends on self-reported data from districts to hold schools accountable. It's a weak system of accountability at best.
In LRSD's case (because of the 2015 state takeover) the DESE holds direct, operational control of the district. Education Commissioner Johnny Key could be doing direct good for the district, using his authority to inspect every classroom and every bank account for irregularities, and making daily decisions to bring LRSD into compliance with the law. However, Key has a conflict of interest that prevents him from doing this due diligence.
Johnny Key is a politician, not an educator. Governor Asa Hutchinson appointed Key to further Hutchinson's political agenda, which is largely dictated by the Walton family. "Success," to Johnny Key, means meeting the expectations of his political and financial backers -- not the expectations of Arkansas citizens and stakeholders of the LRSD.
The Walton family expect Asa Hutchinson and Johnny Key to clear the way for charter school proliferation and increased use of private school vouchers. The surest, quickest way to guarantee explosive charter school growth and a dependence on private-school vouchers in Arkansas' capital city is to force the Little Rock School District to "fail." Johnny Key -- by turning a blind eye to real problems in LRSD -- is deliberately allowing the gears of LRSD's operating mechanism to grind against each other, putting intolerable strain on the entire system.
Thus, in the absence of good-faith governance, it falls to the children, teachers, stakeholders, and lawyers of Little Rock to defend our laws and standards in court. Please support the plaintiffs who have suffered enough already. Donate to the Education Defense League today!