Repeating History:  The “New” Little Rock School District

By: Shay Randolph

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

During a panel discussion on public education, James Baldwin once said that “education is a billion dollar industry and the least important part of that industry is the child.”  Today, that statement still reigns true.  The Arkansas Board of Education’s plan to return limited local control to Little Rock School district is not only ineffective but is problematic and divisive.  The limited local control will consist of a board elected by the community that would only be responsible for the non-failing schools, while the failing schools, which happen to be the predominantly black schools with inadequate resources, would remain under the State’s control.  Since 2015, the State has assumed control of Little Rock’s public schools and that control has yielded very few improvements.  The transformation of Hall High School in Little Rock, AR, and the Little Rock School District’s new boundaries are going to racially divide students and communities.  The district is closing J.A. Fair High School and McClellan high school and consolidating the schools.  The students from these schools will be assigned to either Central High School, Hall High School, or the new high school—Southwest High School.  The boundaries are supposed to be race-neutral; however, once implemented the boundaries would place more African American and Hispanic children at Southwest High School.  Southwest High School would be the only high school without a magnet component.

Arkansas is nationally known for its failure to desegregate Central High School with deliberate speed, so the Little Rock School District’s new plan for a new high school, the transformation of another high school and new zoning boundaries are going to result in history being repeated.  Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958).  This plan officiated by the Arkansas Board of Education further exemplifies “today’s methods of avoiding integration” by further dividing the schools by race and continuing to perpetuate the “separate and unequal” principle.

Hall High was opened in 1957 as the city’s second white high school.  Two years later, three African American girls integrated Hall High School, and like most schools that were integrated in the South, the white students left in large numbers.  Today, Hall High School is known as one of the predominantly black high schools. In the 2017-2018 school year, 629 of the students were African American; 338 were Hispanic, and 57 were white.  The new plan for Hall High School would essentially funnel most of the minority students out and into Southwest High School.  Many of the current students of Hall High School will not experience the improvements of the high school; the tiered system will segregate students and a community that is still mending from a history of desegregation of segregated schools and communities.

As I began with James Baldwin, I end with James Baldwin.  “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  The State’s takeover of the Little Rock School District, just months after the first time in history that the predominantly black district saw its first elected majority-black school board, should be questioned.  The State’s decision to take power away from the communities that send their children to these schools should be questioned.  The State’s plan and how it affects every student should be questioned. Students should not remain in failing schools that are under the State’s control.  Allotting some control to school boards should not be determinative of whether the school is failing when schools under the State’s control have yielded no success.  The State’s plan to provide top-bottom intervention should be questioned, because history has made clear the effects of segregation. The Arkansas Board of Education—state-appointed officials—and elected leaders should think long and hard before repeating history, if not for anything else, for the well-being and success of the child, the most important thing in public education.

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