Little Rock Teachers Refuse to Relive the Bad Old Days

Photo: Andrew Demillo/AP/Shutterstock

In the fall of 1957, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas told the people that he had become weary of the fight to keep schools segregated. “But is there any choice?” he mused. “Once integration is effected totally and completely, will the peace and harmony you desire be attained?” School integration, he continued, would destroy “the good relations” between races; the Little Rock Nine, who were then trying to enter the city’s Central High School, threatened the security of the state. With the speech, Faubus meant to draw a red line. As far as he was concerned, Arkansas schools would not integrate, not today and not ever. They did, of course, in spite of him — beginning with the Nine, who entered Central High School with protection from the National Guard. Faubus died a discredited man.

But the fight over school segregation did not die with him. Now, over a half century after Faubus delivered his infamous speech, public school teachers say that a different governor threatens the work the Little Rock Nine began. On Thursday morning, the Little Rock Education Association went on strike for the first time since 1987. They’re protesting a state proposal that would, they say, resegregate the city’s schools. Teachers first authorized the one-day strike a month ago, LREA president Teresa Knapp Gordon told New York on Tuesday, but state officials, led by Republican governor Asa Hutchinson, did not heed the warning.

The Arkansas state board of education directly controls the Little Rock School District, and has done so since 2015. State officials justified the takeover by citing the district’s low standardized-test scores. But as the Arkansas Times reported in October, teachers themselves have attributed the same results to rampant poverty, and have long worried about the consequences of state control. In September, the state board appeared to validate their concerns. Officials proposed returning limited local control to the district, but there was a catch: The state also wanted to reconstitute the district, and essentially divide it in half. Higher-income, predominantly white schools would fall under local control, but lower-income schools in historically black neighborhoods would stay under state control, ostensibly because of their test scores. Segregation would return, over half a century after it was supposed to end.

After an outcry from educators, the state modified its original proposal. But the union says it still contains some troubling provisions. State officials could transform struggling schools into community schools that would benefit from additional “health and social services,” according to a memorandum of understanding the union shared with New York. In this manner, the schools may resemble the traditional community-school model, which adds wraparound services, like counseling or GED courses for adult learners, to the usual course offerings. But in other respects, community schools, as the state of Arkansas seeks to define them, resemble charter schools. Schools could implement different personnel policies, different student discipline policies, and design a different school calendar and school day. “What they have proposed,” Knapp Gordon said, “is a tiered system that segregates schools that serve our black and brown students and our children in deepest poverty under a system that looks a lot like a charter system.”

For teachers, it’s one burden too many. “The pressure that’s coming from the governor and state board is something that we should not have to contend with, given that we have so many other things on our plate that directly impact instruction every day,” said Kelley Pedro, who teaches middle-school students in Little Rock. In addition to classroom instruction, teachers say they feel they’re also safeguarding the legacy of the civil-rights movement from antagonistic state officials.

The crisis in Little Rock highlights the persistence of inequality and the fragility of progress. The city only elected its first black mayor last year, and the Little Rock School District settled an open desegregation lawsuit as recently as 2014. Educators also battle a state government that has revealed itself to be categorically hostile to spending public funds on public services. Hutchinson is known nationally for attaching work requirements to Medicaid expansion that cut thousands of people from the program, and he is similarly parsimonious on the subject of education. He supports the implementation of a school voucher program in the nearby Pulaski County Special School District that would allocate millions from the governor’s discretionary fund to pay for private school tuitions. Meanwhile, schools in both Pulaski County and in the Little Rock School District have suffered funding cuts in recent years. Students, parents, and teachers have all complained that the burdens imposed by the cuts are not equally distributed, and reinforce divisions that figures like Faubus once sought to make permanent.

The union has other powerful enemies, too. Arkansas is also the home of the Walton family. The Walmart heirs have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the charter-school movement, which further tilts the local balance of power away from public educators and toward the traditionally union-hostile education-reform movement. But the example of Matt Bevin looms large: The Republican recently lost reelection as governor of Kentucky after making an enemy of the state’s teachers unions. Public support didn’t break in Bevin’s favor. In Little Rock, teachers say that some parents have even created Facebook pages to show their support for the strike. Megan Prettyman, who teaches social studies at McClellan High School, said on Tuesday that her students “come up to me every single class period, asking what’s going on, saying that they support teachers and that they’re not going to be at school on Thursday.” Another teacher, Kristy Mobsy, said that public support for the strike should be a warning to state officials. “It’s the community that’s going to decide their fate as far as our government is concerned, I think they need to be paying attention,” she said.

Though Thursday’s strike will only last for one day, teachers told New York that a longer strike is not off the table. “All I can tell you right now is that we’re going to do whatever it takes to stand up for students, whatever that may look like,” Knapp Gordon said.

“Our students, they are not for sale,” added Lakeitha Austin, another Little Rock teacher. “They are not to be sold to the rich so that they can profit off of them. They belong to one district, the Little Rock School District.”

Little Rock Teachers Strike Against Segregation