A Strike for Racial Justice and Democracy in Little Rock Schools

Teachers and support staff are walking out today in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s yet another show of worker militancy in a deeply red state, focused on the most basic questions of racial justice and school resegregation, teachers’ rights to organize, and democratic control over the school district.

Arkansas territorial capitol, Little Rock, Arkansas, circa 1945. Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection #77631 / Wikimedia

The teachers’ strike wave shows no signs of ebbing anytime soon. Chicago’s school workers struck in October, teachers in Sonoma walked out this Wednesday, and now 1,800 educators in Little Rock, Arkansas are striking today.

Though every walkout is unique, Little Rock’s action is particularly exceptional: it’s a strike for democracy and racial justice, in a town that stood at the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement’s fight for school desegregation and which today is confronting a billionaire-backed push to dismantle the teachers’ union and public schools.

Little Rock teachers today are not demanding raises for themselves, but an end to the state’s push to resegregate schools, its takeover of their district, its decertification of their union, and its disrespect for school support staff. As second grade teacher Jenni White explains, “this is literally about standing up for our kids and not dividing our community.”

A Fight for Equality and Democracy

On September 4, 1957, nine black students attempting to begin class at all-white Little Rock Central High were met with a racist white mob and the Arkansas National Guard. The heroism of the Little Rock Nine effectively initiated the Civil Rights Movement’s push for school desegregation and, through many years of conflict and struggle, Jim Crow was finally toppled in Arkansas and across the South.

Over six decades later, the town’s schools and neighborhoods remain far from equal. Interstate 630 today marks a sharp dividing line between white and nonwhite Little Rock. But in a significant break from the 1950s, unionized educators are now fighting together with students of color against the impositions of billionaire-backed politicians — what the Arkansas Times called the “Walmarting of the Little Rock School District.”

The immediate roots of this week’s action go back to January 2015 when the Arkansas State Board of Education announced that it was taking over Little Rock’s schools due to low standardized test scores. By all accounts, the ensuing state takeover failed to accomplish its nominal goal of improving stability and educational opportunities for the town’s low-performing schools. Yet rather than return Little Rock School District to local control in 2020 as promised, the state board instead proposed in September of this year that it would continue to oversee so-called “F”-rated schools, those with the lowest test scores.

Since all but one of the “F” schools were in black and brown neighborhoods south of I-630, teachers and parents saw this an attempt to create a two-tier school system. “The plan was blatantly racist, it separated the haves and the have notes,” Jenni White told me.

In a dramatic protest on the evening of October 9, thousands of teachers, support staff, students, and community members congregated on the steps of Central High, where the Little Rock Nine had famously confronted the National Guard decades earlier. Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association (LREA), closed the rally with the following declaration: “Either we accept segregation, or we stand and fight.”

This public outpouring forced the state board to change tactics. At the next evening’s contentious Arkansas Board of Education meeting, it dropped the proposal to split Little Rock’s school district. But surprisingly, the board then immediately proceeded to cease recognition of the LREA as the educators’ representative, thereby scrapping the last remaining collective bargaining agreement for school workers in Arkansas. The decision was blatant retaliation against not only teachers but also Little Rock’s school support staff, who were in the midst of negotiating a pay raise.

Next, the board issued a draft “Memorandum of Understanding” explaining that instead of returning full local control to the school board set to be elected in November 2020, the state would appoint a parallel “advisory board” that could veto local decisions. The Memorandum also insists on closing up to eleven neighborhood schools — which would thereby accelerate privatization, since state law gives charters first access to any vacant school. Stacey McAdoo, a teacher at Central High, told Labor Notes, “they are trying to charterize the [district] like what happened in New Orleans and disenfranchise people and make a separate school system out of the areas that are primarily Black and Latino.

As in so many other states across the country, this offensive against the labor movement, public education, and working-class communities of color is being directly funded by billionaires. And it’s not just any billionaires: Little Rock teachers and students are up against the Arkansas-based Waltons, founders of Walmart and the richest family in America.

“It is our moral imperative to protect those students from those who seek to use them as pawns in privatization schemes to destroy public education,” argues LREA president Knapp Gordon.

The Waltons for decades have bankrolled Arkansas politicians, including Governor Asa Hutchinson, to break up unions and the public sector. They have paid for anti-union Astroturf organizations like the Arkansas State Teachers Association and leveraged their fortune to make standardized testing the live-or-die metric to judge Arkansas schools.

This testing regime has grown despite abundant research showing that high-stakes tests are inherently biased against students in poverty, who consistently underperform. “[T]est scores tell us more about the community they live in than what they know.” Stacey McAdoo, Arkansas’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, pointed out in a recent Arkansas Democrat-Gazette op-ed how these testing policies have actively undermined the education of the communities they are supposed to benefit:

Our current use of school evaluations has created a demoralizing system and is psychologically unhealthy for children. Data is important. But it is not the be-all, end-all. It is merely a residue of reality and should not be used to label, shame or divide, nor should it be weaponized or used punitively against the most vulnerable: schools and students from under-resourced homes and communities.

Parents on both sides of the interstate have pledged their support for teachers and demanded the return of full democratic control of the school district. In a dramatic turnaround from 1957, Little Rock has witnessed the emergence of a multiracial working-class movement to challenge Arkansas’s right-wing establishment. One point of continuity with the civil rights era, however, is the prominent role of students. On October 30, thousands of high schoolers organized a sick-out and protested in front of the governor’s office to demand a full return to local control and recognition of the teachers’ union.

The LREA set a strike date for today, to coincide with the state panel’s vote on establishing the zoning specifics for the new local board. The union’s demands are clear: return full control to a democratically elected local board, end the plans to impose different policies on black and brown students, recognize the LREA, and grant raises to school support staff. How long the action will last has not yet been determined — Knapp Gordon has announced that “no options are off the table at this point.”

Unsurprisingly, Walton-funded Governor Hutchinson has responded by attacking the union, which he claims “has chosen to lead a strike that encourages teachers to walk out on their students.” The district similarly has declared its intent to keep schools open by using strikebreakers. That’s why continued public support for the educators is key. In the words of Wendy Sheridan, a Little Rock parent who will be walking the picket line with her two children, “while as parents we want what’s best for our children, and that’s to be in school, at this point what’s best for our children is to support our educators and support others who are trying to do what’s right for them in the long run.”

Faced with powerful billionaire opponents, and the absence of explicit legal permission in Arkansas for public sector strikes, today’s action by teachers and support staff is certainly a risk. Arkansas Republicans have already shown their willingness to resort to punitive measures to bully educators.

Yet as the Little Rock Nine made clear decades ago, and as striking educators from West Virginia to Chicago have demonstrated again, real change only comes when large numbers of ordinary people are willing take risks to fight an unjust status quo. As Jenni White told me, “I’m excited and scared at the same time — but, personally, I would not be able live with myself if I didn’t participate in the strike.”