Overview of Study
In 1957, if the most deeply committed civil rights advocates, both African-American and white, could have looked ahead and seen the Little Rock School District as we know it in 1997, they almost certainly would have said, "No, that is not what we are seeking."
Looking ahead to 1997 from the year of the debacle at Central High School in 1957, they would have glimpsed 40 years later a deeply troubled school district, one still mired in desegregation litigation and racially re-segregating. They would have seen a school district with an uncertain financial future. They would have seen 14,000 students per day being bused to meet school building racial ratios.
In their life-times, the adults of 1957 had seen families of both races move to Little Rock so their children could attend public schools regarded as the best in the state. In 1997, they would have seen that families were moving out of Little Rock so their children could attend other schools; and Little Rock schools were being cited as a disincentive to businesses that might otherwise relocate to Little Rock, bringing good jobs to the people of the city. In 1957, they would have been impressed by the quality of the district's administrative and instructional personnel in 1997, but they would have been shocked by the teachers' cries for help on discipline problems in their classrooms.
The picture in 1997 is not what the people of Little Rock in 1957 were looking forward to, nor is it what the people of Little Rock in 1997 want. In the course of this year-long study, we encountered no one who was satisfied with the status quo in the Little Rock School District (LRSD).
The visionaries of 1957 looking ahead to 1997 would have been gratified that an African American could be--had been--selected as superintendent in 1993; and that an African American had been elected president of the school board. Given such evidence of progress, however, they might very well have been puzzled that by 1997 the people of the city had not all joined hands to provide the schools their children desperately needed.
The surveys conducted during this study show that the community has made progress. Forty years after the debacle at Central High School, a solid majority of both races in Little Rock favor racially-integrated schools. Although there are important differences in African-American and white views on school issues, there are many views and aspirations which are held in common. What we have found are many weary African Americans and whites who are afraid of necessary change but probably willing to chance it in the interest of stable public schools and a better overall community.
Fundamentally, the community in 1997 faces the unfinished business of 1957. The federal courts did a necessary and commendable work in dismantling the old discriminatory system of dual, racially-segregated, public schools. But in all the years of overseeing desegregating school districts, the courts have not been successful in replacing the old system with a stable new system. That is something only the community can do.
One of the premises of this report is embodied in that old line, you have to face it to fix it. It does not help to minimize or deny the realities.
We believe that if people of Little Rock know the facts and develop an understanding of their situation, then they can make intelligent choices to change their community for the better. Therefore, in the spirit of plain talk, we feel obliged to include information and discussion throughout this report that some will feel should have been left out.
Although we have made an effort to be plain and candid, we must warn that this subject--the Little Rock public schools--is a very big subject, multi-faceted and complex. We believe, however, that the subjects we address in this report are those which will provide a necessary and sufficient basis for a solid community understanding of this major community problem.
A second premise of this report is that it is to the community--to the people who live in the City of Little Rock. It is not to the school board, superintendent, or teachers. It was not done for the PTA or the Chamber of Commerce. It was undertaken because the community told the University during the recent UALR 2000 planning process that the public schools were a major problem and that the University should try to help solve it. Because it is a report to the community and not to the schools, it does not include detailed recommendations in each chapter telling the administration and teachers how to do their jobs.
This overview chapter constitutes Part One of the report. Part Two addresses where we are and how we got here. It includes a brief history of the school district, presents enrollment data and analysis, and examines the community's capacity to support public education. Part Three is in some ways the backbone of the report. Chapter Five reports the results of surveys of African-American and white opinion on school-related questions. Early in our study we compared the views of African Americans and whites as reflected in a community telephone survey of 800 households of which 564 were white, 211 were African-American, and 25 were others. We wanted a firmer basis for reporting the views of African Americans. Therefore, a second telephone survey was conducted of only African American households, 400 in all. (This second survey of African Americans may be a first in survey research in Little Rock.)
Chapter Six, probably the most novel chapter in the report, seeks to humanize the similarities and differences in opinion and to talk about views African Americans and whites rarely discuss with each other. The chapter addresses a critical issue and a significant barrier to progress: Many African Americans do not trust whites, specifically the commitment of whites to equal educational opportunities for all children of the city.
In Part Four, Chapters Seven and Twelve illustrate constraints on the school district from outside. Chapter Seven, based largely on interviews last spring of all living former superintendents of the LRSD, concludes with the statement of one of them, "The way things are now, a superintendent cannot succeed." Chapter Twelve, addresses the subject of school district boundaries--an issue that might sound insignificant but which in fact is of fundamental importance.
Chapters Eight through Eleven deal with matters that school officials should address. Chapter Eight explores one of the central issues in the desegregation plan, the academic achievement of students and, specifically, the gap in achievement test score averages between African-Americans and whites. This chapter also presents startling data on conditions which contribute to the achievement gap.
Chapter Nine provides a financial perspective on the Little Rock School District. Chapter Ten analyzes the issue of safety and discipline. A very great effort was made to find, refine, and present data that would give an accurate picture of safety and discipline in Little Rock schools. Chapter Eleven, on character education, reports programs that have the potential to increase achievement and also reduce discipline problems.
Part Five looks to the future. The agenda is so big and complex that choices must be made about what to do first. There are steps that must be taken as pre-conditions to all the other things that need to be done. Chapter Thirteen identifies such pre-condition issues for the agenda of school officials. Chapter Fourteen then urges community action to develop a vision and a strategy for achieving that vision. This chapter also sketches a process through which the community might be able to carry out such an extraordinary community action.
Then, finally, an Epilogue takes note of very recent developments affecting the district.
It has been said that one definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. One of the reasons the schools are where they are today is that with each periodic crisis, an effort is made to fix the last solution. In 1997, if the effort made is to fix problems in the 1989 settlement agreement, it is not likely to represent a lasting solution. The issue must be re-framed. The problem must be tackled from a different direction. The pages that follow provide a basis for seeing the school situation clearly and for responding differently.
There is no denying that the school problem is deep and the challenge of achieving desirable change is great. Yet people who have been living and watching the world since 1957 should not doubt the possibilities. They have seen the Berlin Wall go up, then come down. They have seen the Soviet empire crumble without a bomb dropped on it. They have watched an American walk on the moon. Perhaps more to the point, Nelson Mandela has not only been freed from jail, but he has been elected President of South Africa; and the racially-discriminatory system of apartheid there has been dismantled. Beyond all that and more, a boy born in a small town in Arkansas has twice been elected President of the United States. It is not an exaggeration to say that the people of Little Rock can still make their public schools whatever they want them to be.