In Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, the state Department of Education held stakeholder meetings to determine the future of a failing school district. The meetings allowed community members to provide input on the future of the district, which is currently under state control.
Problems and Purpose
The Little Rock School District (LRSD) is located in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA. The LRSD was placed under state control on January 28th, 2015 due to academic distress in six of the district’s 48 schools . Since 2015, citizens of Little Rock have advocated for a return to local control under a democratically-elected school board. Under Arkansas Act 930, after the five-year period under state control, the school district must be consolidated, annexed, or reconstituted . The problem faced by community members was the end result of this act: the de facto resegregation of Little Rock students.
The stakeholder meetings were held to allow community members to voice their concerns and opinions about the future of the LRSD as the district nears the end of its five-year period under state control (the five-year period ends in January 2020). The stakeholder meetings took place on August 20th, August 26th, August 27th, August 29th, and September 3rd, 2019 at prominent local community centers: Arkansas Baptist College, Don R. Roberts Elementary School, St. Mark Baptist Church, Longley Baptist Church, and the State Capitol, respectively.
Background History and Context
In the United States, public schools are traditionally governed by democratically elected local school boards, subject to various state laws. Little Rock schools have been historically segregated. Central High School, the site of the Little Rock Nine, is within the Little Rock School District. The Little Rock Nine refers to the first nine African American students that attended Central High School in 1957, when Central High School was a fully segregated white school.
Despite desegregation of the schools over 50 years ago, schools south of Interstate-630- particularly those in Southwest Little Rock- have been under academic distress for several years. Interstate-630 has become an important line of division between high and low-income areas in Little Rock since its construction in the 1980s. Interstate-630 currently serves as a “redline” which separates white and African American and Latinx community members along racial, ethnic, and income-based lines. The academic distress experienced by Little Rock schools on the “wrong side” of I-630 is partially due to insufficient funding. In Little Rock public schools, a large majority of funding comes from local property taxes. After the desegregation of Little Rock, many white families fled to racially segregated private schools and surrounding white suburbs, which effectively siphoned taxpayer dollars from the LRSD, leaving LRSD public schools racially segregated and chronically underfunded.
In the eyes of community members, the state takeover of this school district, and now the impending reconstitution of the district, only serve to further segregate and disadvantage poor, Black, and Brown children in Little Rock.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The five stakeholder meetings were organized by the Arkansas Department of Education.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The stakeholder meetings were completely open to the public. The meetings were advertised on the official LRSD website and emailed to parents and families that receive regular LRSD email updates. The meetings were strategically held in various community centers such as St. Mark Baptist Church, Arkansas Baptist College, Don R. Roberts Elementary School, Longley Baptist Church in Southwest Little Rock, and the State Capitol to maximize community member participation . At the first meeting, it was requested that an additional meeting be added in Southwest Little Rock (where many of the failing schools are located), but the request was never granted .
Many community members were present at the meetings: state legislators, Arkansas State Education Board members, teachers and students in the Little Rock School District, members of the Little Rock Education Association, and citizens of Little Rock. It is important to note that the Little Rock Education Association is the teachers’ union in Little Rock. All participants were voluntarily self-selected. There is no exact estimate for the number of participants, but the author personally observed at least 100 community members at the August 27th meeting.
Methods and Tools Used
During meetings, State Board members sat at the head of the audience (on a stage in some cases) and attempted to facilitate the meetings. The initial guidelines for audience participation limited comments to three minutes per person. This guideline, however, was quickly overturned at each of the meetings. What began as a public hearing organized by the Department of Education quickly turned into citizens mobilizing for control over the Little Rock school district.
On the part of Little Rock citizens, social media, especially Facebook livestreaming, played a significant role in disseminating information both before and after the meetings. The meetings were livestreamed by individual citizens, as well as organizational Facebook pages such as Arkansas Hate Watch, the Little Rock Education Association, and the LRSD advocacy group Our Community, Our Schools.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
At each of the five stakeholder meetings, State Board members attempted to facilitate the conversation by allowing community members to speak for three minutes at a time. When this was challenged by attendees at the August 27th meeting, the Board Members removed the time limit. After hearing some comments from the community, State Board members attempted to conduct “break-out” sessions in other rooms so that community members could present their concerns. These break-out sessions were intended to be facilitated by the State Board members themselves.
However, instead of participating in the Board member-led sessions, many citizens instead chose to discuss amongst themselves to come up with solutions. They remained in the original meeting space and continued discussion. Within these groups at the August 27th meeting, “hundreds of people participated in a community-led exercise to draft a proposal to the State Board” . According to reporters, “that exercise was both productive and fairly orderly,” even though the format did not follow any sort of parliamentary procedure . This proposal was presented to the State Board members at the end of the meeting, but was met with little recognition.
News of how the stakeholder meetings unfolded was reported by several local news sites such as the Arkansas Times and the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Many community members also took to social media after each of the meetings, expressing outrage, concern, hope, and every other emotion about the future of the school district. Social media posts were made by ordinary citizens, as well as government officials, such as State Representative Andrew Collins.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The purpose of the stakeholder meetings was to allow community members to express not only their concerns, but their suggestions for the future of the LRSD. While this broader goal was accomplished, community members did not receive the result they overwhelmingly argued for during the meetings: a return to a democratically-elected, locally-controlled school board.
Efforts by local community members ultimately did not convince the Arkansas Department of Education to return the Little Rock School District to local, democratically-elected control. On September 20th, 2019, the Arkansas Department of Education released a plan which placed LRSD schools into three distinct categories . Category 1 schools have at least a “D” grade, Category 2 schools are currently being assessed and reconfigured, and Category 3 schools have a grade of “F” . Under this plan, Category 3 schools will be placed “under different leadership” . Community members are unsure if this “different leadership” refers to charter management or continued state control.
A perhaps unintended success during the struggle to be heard during these community meetings was the emergence of a fortified community with the common goal of fighting for children’s educational rights. The outrage sparked by the community meetings has continued to inspire acts of civic engagement surrounding the LRSD. On October 9th, 2019 thousands of Little Rock citizens gathered to hold a candlelight vigil at Central High School as a nod to the effects of segregation . Dozens of teachers have taken to the streets to protest the resegregation of the school district, as well .
Analysis and Lessons Learned
As of October 2019, the LRSD has not been returned to democratically-elected local control. Although the outcry of Little Rock citizens did not seem to affect the decisions made by the Arkansas Department of Education, it did prove that Little Rock can come together and unify itself for a common goal. Citizens from all over the city attended the five stakeholder meetings, from teachers to state representatives to students, and inspired hundreds more to participate in acts of civic engagement on behalf of the community’s children. This series of meetings was a clear example of a community working together to fight for the rights of its underserved children. As Ali Noland stated about the August 27th meeting: “Hundreds of LRSD supporters put [their] disagreements aside in order to fight for the future of our schools. That is unity, not division” .
Arkansas Hate Watch Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ArkansasHateWatch/
Little Rock Education Association Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/littlerockeducationassociation/?ref=br_rs
Our Community, Our Schools Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/littlerockeducationassociation/?ref=br_rs
State Representative Andrew Collins’ Facebook page containing several posts about the stakeholder meetings and the state of the LRSD: https://www.facebook.com/andrewcollinsAR/
 Barth, J., Reith, M. & Ledbetter, S. (2019). “Reconstituting LRSD with community trust.” Retrieved from https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2019/sep/08/reconstituting-lrsd-with-community-trus/.
 Millar, L. (2019). “Hints of the future of the LRSD at the first State Board meeting inspire frustration, confusion.” Retrieved from https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2019/08/20/hints-on-the-future-of-the-lrsd-at-first-state-board-meeting-inspire-anger-frustration.
 “ADE hosts important stakeholder meetings.” Retrieved from https://www.lrsd.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=4&ModuleInstanceID=2716&ViewID=6446EE88-D30C-497E-9316-3F8874B3E108&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=6053&PageID=1.
 Noland, Ali. (2019). “LRSD parent perspective: This is what unity really looks like.” Retrieved from https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2019/08/28/lrsd-parent-perspective-this-is-what-unity-really-looks-like.
 Millar, L. (2019). “Governor defends continued state control of LRSD.” Retrieved from https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2019/09/23/governor-defends-continued-state-control-of-lrsd.
 Brooks, Haylee. (2019). “LRSD candlelight vigil bringing a flicker of history to the present.” Retrieved from https://www.kark.com/news/lrsd-candlelight-vigil-bringing-a-flicker-of-history-to-the-present/.
 Rose, Shelby. (2019). “LREA pickets along I-630 overpass, demands local control of LRSD.” Retrieved from https://katv.com/news/local/lrea-pickets-along-i-630-overpass-demands-local-control-of-lrsd.
The first version of this case entry was written by Farrah Beck, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.