Chapter Four

Community Capacity to Support Public Education

Little Rock is not a poor city, and the Little Rock School District is not a poor school district. Regional and national comparisons show that the people of Little Rock not only value education but also have the money to fund a first-rate public school system.

Little Rock has the three essential foundations of an excellent public school system. First, the community places a high value on education. Second, an economic base exists that can produce significant tax revenues. Third, the people are willing to tax themselves at a level that will provide adequate funds for first-rate public schools. Little Rock scores well on all of these measures. In spite of the complexity of its public school problems, Little Rock has no reason to see itself as a victim in light of the facts that follow.

Valuing Education in Little Rock

The citizens of Little Rock have put a high value on education, as shown by the levels of education they have themselves attained. Those who have attained education transmit its importance to others, especially in their immediate families. There is no better evidence of this fact than the recent national research reported by the University of Chicago that tracked 25,000 teens since 1988 and found their academic achievement more heavily influenced by a parent's level of education and income than any other factor.1 The pattern of data on educational attainment in Little Rock is consistent with this national finding.

As one generation has followed another in Little Rock, both for African Americans and whites, levels of education have climbed higher. The data in Figures 4-1, 4-2, 4-3 and 4-4 underscore a strong tradition of educational attainment as follows:

Figure 4-1
Figure 4-2
Figure 4-3
Figure 4-4

It is not enough, however, simply to compare the educational attainment of Little Rock residents to state or national norms. The city and school district do not routinely compete at these geographic levels. A more meaningful comparison is to know how Little Rock's educational profile measures up against other cities similar to its size or regional economic stature.

Table 4-1 shows Little Rock and other cities generally recognized as "regional" economic centers in the south or mid-south region. Little Rock ranks sixth among these 24 economic and government capitals on the measure of education attained at the college level.

Table 4-1

Economic Base

The second element essential to a community's capacity for public education is a strong enough economy to provide a sufficient tax base to support the school district. Although actual tax rates are typically decided by local voters, a community must first possess sufficient wealth to translate into adequate public revenues for schools. Little Rock, among regional competitors in the south, appears to have more than adequate local wealth to finance public education.

The LRSD is heavily dependent on local property tax rolls and the millage rates applied to real estate and personal property within its boundaries. As the anchor of Arkansas' central economic region, Little Rock and the LRSD have a strong property tax base valued at $1.95 billion or 9.6 percent of Arkansas' total property wealth. This sum dwarfs any other school district, city, or county government in the state.

In addition to property wealth, a measure of the economic environment of the LRSD is personal income. Table 4-2 returns to the previously identified 24 regional economic centers and compares median household income among these metropolitan competitors. The LRSD ranks in the top one-third.

("Median income" is the income found exactly in the middle of all incomes in a group. Fifty percent of all households are above this amount and 50 percent are below it. Demographers generally prefer using the median, rather than mean [average] household income because it offers a better portrayal of the central income level in a community.)

Table 4-2

Figure 4-5 highlights that during the 30 years between 1960 and 1990, Little Rock consistently has achieved near equality with the national median family income. In contrast for all of Arkansas, median family income was $10,000 lower, or about 25 percent less, than national family median income.

Figure 4-5

Comparisons within racial groups also reveal family income parity between Little Rock and the nation. (See Table 4-3). African-Americans in Little Rock earned close to the median--94.1 percent--of the nation's African-American family median income in 1990. Little Rock white families compare better with their national counterpart: in 1990 white families in Little Rock had, on average, 10 percent more income than white families in the nation.

Table 4-3
Median Family Income
African Americans and Whites in Little Rock
Amount and Percent, Respectively,
of National African American and White Groups
1960 - 1990
1960 1970 1980 1990
Amount Percent of USA Amount Percent of USA Amount Percent of USA Amount Percent of USA
USA African-Amer $3,161 100.0 $6,067 100.0 $12,598 100.0 $22,429 100.0
Arkansas African-Amer $1,636 51.8 $3,455 56.9 $9,053 71.9 $14,785 65.9
Little Rock African-Amer $2,774 87.9 $4,836 79.7 $11,829 93.9 $21,103 94.1
USA White $5,893 100.0 $9,961 100.0 $20,835 100.0 $37,152 100.0
Arkansas White $3,678 62.4 $6,828 68.5 $15,598 74.9 $26,939 72.5
Little Rock White $6,007 101.9 $10,073 101.1 $22,792 109.4 $41,074 110.6
Source: 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990 Census of Population
Despite these facts, the legacy of relative economic deprivation of African Americans cannot be ignored. In Little Rock, African-American families earned $21,103 in 1990, an income level that is only 59.9 percent of the $35,225 median for all families in the nation.

Local Effort: Millage Rates

The third building block underpinning a strong public education system is a community's readiness to tax itself for such purposes. The 43.9 mills property tax rate approved by Little Rock voters is exceptional among Arkansas school districts. It is fifth highest among 312 Arkansas school districts. (Three of the higher four millage rates belong to tiny school districts, each with less than 300 total students. They are the Huttig and Mt. Holly districts in Union County and the Umpire district in Howard County. The only sizable district with a property tax millage greater than the LRSD is Fayetteville--one tenth of one mill higher at 44 mills.)

Figure 4-6 shows the property tax revenues per student captured by the 12 largest enrollment school districts in the state. The LRSD's tax base and its millage rate combine to yield over $3,000 per student in local tax revenues. With an enrollment of over 24,000 children, the LRSD has collected about $72 million for its annual budget, a figure that will increase as a result of property reassessment in 1996.

Figure 4-6

In summary, the data presented above reveal a community with a strong tradition of believing in education, an economy that has produced incomes on par with the national median family income, a broad base of real and personal property as a tax base, and an impressive level of voter-approved investment of tax dollars in the public schools. Little Rock has the capacity to provide first-rate schools for the children of the city.


1U. S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988: A Profile of the American Eighth Grader (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1990).

Chapter 5
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