Columns » Max Brantley

There's always next year

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It's graduation time. Many in the school business will go into summer hibernation.

But it is not time to hibernate about issues facing the state's largest school district, here in Little Rock.

For one thing, one of the Little Rock School Board's best members, Baker Kurrus, won't seek re-election in September. He's counting the meetings he has left, a measure of his pessimistic outlook. It should unsettle anyone who, like Kurrus, has sent kids to Little Rock schools, defended them against unilateral condemnation and never quit working to make things better.
Kurrus at least will see the realization of one dream before he leaves, opening of a packed, new primary school in western Little Rock. It will be named for one of the district's great superintendents, Don Roberts. We should be so lucky that he was young again.

Fulbright, another west Little Rock primary school, will be full, too. The problem comes at middle school time. There is no middle school in western Little Rock. Elsewhere, there are precious few pockets of excellence for these difficult years.

Charter schools have drained once-thriving magnet schools. The regular middle schools have a mixed record, often uninspiring, on quality of leadership, commitment of faculty and discipline. It is not enough to say, well, you just need to figure out a way to get your kid into Pulaski Heights Middle School.

The charter schools continue to be a problem for conventional school districts here and everywhere. They are Voucher Lite for a lucky comparative few. They've encouraged segregative practices in Pulaski County, contrary to the state's solemn promises. But, as Kurrus has noted, whites were fleeing public schools before charter schools came along. Limiting charter schools won't prevent parents from moving to Cabot or Bryant. What's more, the popularity of charter schools among many black parents demonstrates the movement isn't a one-race phenomenon.

Kurrus, though he's been a strong critic of the charter school movement in Pulaski County, thinks the School District will waste money and goodwill by suing to stop their proliferation. The brilliance of the district's legal brief could produce a hollow victory, he says. Little Rock has already been declared desegregated. Courts are unfriendly to new actions based on racial percentage arguments. The suit could drive the state away from further financial help and, even if it produced some limitation on charter schools, it would do nothing to address the district's failure to close achievement gaps between black and white, rich and poor.

Little Rock needs aggressive, game-changing leadership. The strategic plan on which Kurrus and others worked is a good start.

But, the School District isn't confidently led. Sometimes, it is simply muddle-headed.

Just last week, the School Board voted to partner with the state Education Department in competition for federal Race to the Top grants. Yet the Obama administration has made it clear that friendliness to charter schools is a key consideration in its award of such grants. Little Rock can't have it both ways.

The School Board is no longer so sharply divided on race as before. Black and white members alike have resisted an extension of Superintendent Linda Watson's contract for lack of forward progress in the first two of her three years. But the black members seem reluctant to move forcefully. Protection of the administrative ranks, full of so many old friends and colleagues, continues. A new consultant or a new administrator is discussed as fixes when signs point to more elemental problems. It's past time for workarounds.

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