Senate Committee Blocks Bill Returning School District to Local Control

The legislation would have set a deadline for ending state control of the Little Rock School District.

Sen. Joyce Elliott

Senator Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, presented Senate Bill 314 to the Senate Education Committee yesterday afternoon in an effort to bring the Little Rock School District under local control. The bill did not advance out of committee.

The Arkansas Board of Education can take over a school district if there are issues with academics, facilities or finances. The Pulaski County Special School District, Helena-West Helena School District, Lee County School District, Earle School District, Dollarway School District, Pine Bluff School District and the Little Rock School District have all been under state control. 

Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, spoke in favor of the bill and said it’s important to recognize that these state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino school districts.

“These are the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, decision-making ability and self-determination,” Fleming said. “Students in all schools deserve resources and support.”

Sen. Elliott focused her presentation yesterday on the Little Rock School District which was taken over by the state in January 2015 because six of the district’s 48 schools were considered to be under academic distress. Under Arkansas law, local control was expected to be returned after five years; however, the district is starting its seventh year of state control.

“So if after all this time, if the district is not where it is supposed to be, don’t you think it’s time give it back to the people so they can have at least the opportunity to move their school district forward,” Elliott said.

SB 314 aimed to establish the conditions under which a public school district shall be returned to local control. The legislation would have amended Arkansas law so a public school district would be returned to full local control if the public school district has been under the authority of the state board for five years and has democratically elected a public school district board of directors during a special school election or an annual school election. The Little Rock School District elected a new school board in November and therefore meets this criteria. 

Under the legislation, the state could also return a school district to full local control in fewer than five years. The bill also contained an emergency clause that would have required the district to be returned to local control by June 30.

Education Secretary Johnny Key said the Arkansas Department of Education was against the bill, which did not garner enough support to advance out of committee. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.