The following remarks were delivered by Gary Newton on the evening of July 20, 2015 at Blytheville School Choice Forum hosted by Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Blytheville Unlimited, Great River Economic Development Authority in Governors Hall of Arkansas Northeastern College.
Thank you, Liz, and thanks to the Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Blytheville Unlimited, and Great River Economic Development Authority for hosting us this evening.
And I am especially grateful to and inspired by my fellow parent, Oliver Coppedge, for his leadership in fighting for School Choice for his family and community and being the catalyst for tonight’s meeting.
I have a few brief remarks, before we open the conversation.
To be designated in Academic Distress, schools must average less than 50% of students proficient in math and literacy for three straight years.
Of the 1,050 public schools in Arkansas, only 22 are in Academic Distress.
Of the 232 school districts in Arkansas, only ten have schools in Academic Distress.
Of those ten districts, only five have more than one school in Academic Distress.
Of all the school districts in Arkansas, Blytheville Public Schools has the highest percentage of schools in Academic Distress. Counting your primary and elementary as one school, two-thirds of your district schools are in Academic Distress – 100% of your secondary schools.
You are not in good company. In second place is Forrest City, with 60% of its schools in Academic Distress.
Of the 232 school districts in Arkansas, only seven districts in Garland County have been directed by a federal judge not to participate in School Choice. Otherwise, eleven school districts are choosing to exempt.
Of the eleven districts choosing to exempt from School Choice, four – Forrest City, Dollarway, Pulaski County Special, and Blytheville also have schools in Academic Distress.
Choosing to Deny Choice
In his letter to the Arkansas Department of Education, the Blytheville School Districts’ attorney stated:
“The District’s Board of Directors has determined that the District not participate in school choice under the School Choice Act of 2013, as amended in 2015 by the General Assembly in passing Act 560. The reason is that the District is a party to the following desegregation lawsuits that are still active.”
He then lists mandates and cases from 1971 and 1968, 44 to 47 years ago. His letter continued:
“The desegregation obligations of these cases prohibit the District from taking any action, or refraining from taking any action, the natural and probable consequences of which would be a segregative impact within the District (i.e., the creation, maintaining, or increasing of racially identifiable schools). Permitting school choice under the Acts would have such an impact.”
I am not a lawyer and cannot and will not speak to the legalities of the attorney’s argument. But grasp what he said. A representative of your school district wrote that a law duly passed by the Senate with zero Nays, passed by the House with only seven Nays, and signed by the Governor, the benefits of which are now enjoyed by 214 school districts in Arkansas, would have a segregative impact on the Blytheville Schools.
We and the law say, “Prove it.”
In its February 2015 Policy Brief: Impacts of the Public School Choice Act of 2013, the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy found the just the opposite of the attorney’s assertion:
“Regardless of the demographics trends for districts impacted by school choice, however, there does not appear to be negative effects of school choice for students or districts. Overall demographic enrollment of districts is not consistently impacted by school choice. Even the districts experiencing the greatest losses through school choice are not experiencing significant changes to the demographics of their students.”
What Can You Do?
Those, like Mr. Coppedge, who applied for a School Choice transfer and received a denial from the receiving district based on Blytheville’s exemption, had ten days to file an appeal with the State Board of Education. Mr. Coppedge’s and other appeals will be heard in Little Rock at the Board’s August 13th and 14th meetings. This community needs to show up en masse to show support for these appeals.
If you are assigned to the Academic Distress Blytheville Middle or High Schools, you are eligible for Opportunity School Choice, a separate law, for which the deadline is July 30th. If you are denied, immediately file an appeal with the State Board of Education.
Meanwhile, we also anticipate the opinion of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding Mr. Coppedge and other parents’ challenge to the Blytheville Schools’ exemption from the Public School Choice Act of 2013.
Last week, in her opinion on the new law, the Arkansas Attorney General stated:
“Suppose, for instance, a school district submits ‘proof’ that is patently inadequate to show a ‘genuine conflict’ with the Public School Choice Act. I see no clear procedure under the law for challenging such a submission. I can speculate that a parent of a student would mount a challenge by seeking relief from a court of competent jurisdiction in such a case.”
Finally, having just one school in Academic Distress can thrust an entire district into State takeover, the result of which could be the dismissal of the superintendent and/or board. This community needs to decide if your schools should stay the course, or if a bold correction is required.
Change Can Come
Three years ago, I came to the role in which I now serve as a former executive of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, but most importantly as a father fighting for excellent, accessible public education for my and all the children of the Little Rock School District. In my own community, we were expected to leave one of the highest performing elementary schools in Arkansas and bus across town to a middle school and then high school, both of which were ultimately designated in Academic Distress. Further, both the Little Rock School District and neighboring Pulaski County Special School District claimed an exemption from the Public School Choice Act of 2013, limiting our choice to open-enrollment charter, private or moving.
We lived two-times closer to a Pulaski County Special School District middle school, but because of that State-appointed superintendent’s unilateral decision to exempt, we were denied entry.
Over the next three years, my fellow parents and I proved that change can come when parents lead, the community supports, and no one quits.
We fought for a new superintendent who chose to participate in Choice and whom the previous Attorney General credited as the catalyst for the Desegregation Settlement. We opened an open-enrollment public charter middle and high school for West Little Rock. We worked with the Little Rock Regional Chamber and Fifty for the Future to advocate for State takeover and dismissal of the School Board, and are now supporting the non-traditional superintendent in truly getting about the business of excellently educating all of our students.
As for the Pulaski County Special School District, its millage campaign was defeated three-to-one and the State Board of Education has recommended consolidating the district south of the Arkansas River and into four districts north, two of which don’t even exist yet.
And all that happened in less than three years.
While it has largely been parents leading the fight for choice, it is time your Chamber and economic development organizations assert their leadership in what is truly an economic development emergency for this community and region.
There is no limit to what we may accomplish when the best interests of students are prioritized over the self interests of adults.
Arkansas Learns was created to empower you to assert such leadership. Ours is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, private sector alliance of employers, parents and citizens dedicated to excellent education for all students to ensure the talent and workforce necessary for Arkansas to successfully compete in a global economy.
Right now, a Blytheville online community is available at ArkansasLearns.org/Blytheville for those who want to join the fight for transparency, accountability, rewards and choice in public education, not only in your community, but all across Arkansas.
Once again, I thank Liz, Mr. Coppedge, Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Blytheville Unlimited, and Great River Economic Development Authority for the opportunity to be with you this evening.
We’re here to help, so now let’s talk.