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Central High School: Symbol of Inequities Past and Present

8 min read

In a state educational system that an expert a generation ago called the worst in the United States and that the state Supreme Court now says is an outright abrogation of children’s rights, ornaments are as rare as they are imperfect.

Little Rock Central High School once was the most famous public school in the world. That was during the period of its disgrace, 1957-59, when it symbolized Southern defiance of court orders to integrate schools. On either side of that divide, Central High has been the single public educational institution in Arkansas that could claim enduring distinction inside and beyond the state’s borders.

Even before Gov. Orval E. Faubus made it famous by sending the militia to prevent nine black children from attending classes, the massive edifice made 14th and Park streets the most prominent landmark in Little Rock. Built in 1927 at a cost of $1.5 million — the most expensive school in America at that time — the school was selected by the American Institute of Architects as “the Most Beautiful High School in America.” The seven-story façade, with its Roman arches and its portals guarded by tunic-draped sentinels representing Ambition, Opportunity, Preparation and Personality, set the school apart from all the cheerless low-budget buildings where other Arkansas teachers and children toiled.

Famous as it was, the magnificent building became a symbol of another sort, of the vast inequalities in Arkansas schools, starting obviously with the facilities but running through the curricula and the quality of teachers. The Supreme Court ordered all of that fixed in 2002 because the state Constitution requires the state government to give every child a good and equal education. Sixteen months later, after the longest special session in history, the Legislature has tried to meet some of the mandate but it is still flummoxed about how it can supply and equip adequate school buildings for every child, which may cost $1 billion or more.

It was not merely for the vast collegiate gothic building, which was supposed to put people in mind of Oxford or another of the great citadels of learning, that Central High was celebrated. For much of its history it has been the colossus of Arkansas public education, dominating everything from scholastic awards to athletic trophies, although its supremacy now is considerably below what it was.

In the months before Faubus tried to thwart desegregation, a survey rated Central one of the top 38 high schools in the United States on the basis of the scholastic performance of its graduates and the scores of seniors on National Merit examinations. Still today, its reputation stands its stellar graduates in good stead when they apply at Ivy League and other highly selective liberal arts schools. Five percent or more of its college-bound graduates from year to year are accepted by those schools. College Bound, a professional journal published by the College Board, listed it among 26 public high schools most often identified by admissions deans of the country’s most selective colleges and universities as schools that, year in and year out, best prepare students for competitive college work.

In each of the past four years, three of the eight Arkansas winners of the prestigious writing awards of the National Council of Teachers of English were Central seniors. For the past 20 years it has rarely failed to have at least a third of the Arkansas winners.

While the creation of the Arkansas School of Math and Sciences and the growth of private academies have weakened its dominion, over the past 10 years 160 Central students were National Merit semifinalists — 10 percent of all of the semifinalists in the state from public and private schools and home-schoolers. National Merit semifinalists are the one-half of 1 percent of high school juniors with the highest scores on a portion of the SAT. Central’s share of National Merit Achievement scholars — limited to African-Americans — is even higher, up to a fifth each year.

Its secrets to success may be mere tradition and reputation, which attract faculty and students. From the school’s beginning, when only 8 percent of Arkansas students attended high school, parents from around central Arkansas finagled to get their children into the school by paying tuition or arranging for children to live with relatives in the city.

The school went into a spiral after the integration crisis. Morris Holmes, the acting Little Rock superintendent now and the second black principal at Central, was credited with the school’s renaissance. The school excelled, he said, owing to “one great faculty in terms of intellect, training, scholarship and dedication.”

“That’s what this school rides on right now,” he said.

Mindful of criticism that the school system concentrated elite teachers in a few schools, the Little Rock School Board reshuffled the secondary faculty in the spring of 1987 and dispersed many Central teachers among other schools. A batch of Central juniors trooped after school one day to the office of federal District Judge Henry Woods, who presided over the Little Rock school desegregation case, to protest the faculty transfers. The judge invited them into his chambers and the next day ordered the district to stop it.

In more ways than one, Central High mirrors the vast inequalities and inadequacies that caused the Supreme Court for the third time in 20 years to declare Arkansas schools constitutionally unsound. The array of programs that Central and other urban schools offered were compared with the scarcity of courses in small and poor schools, particularly in science, math, foreign languages, the arts and vocational careers. Central offers 260 credit courses and another 53 vocational courses at Metropolitan High School, which many Central students attend for half days. Many small high schools and others in property-poor districts do not offer annually the 38 units that state standards require. The Supreme Court also cited the great disparities in teacher pay and qualifications.

Those disparities must end, and it’s the state’s obligation, not the school districts’, to bring it about, the Supreme Court said. It said the academic opportunities for children in poor schools like Lake View in Phillips County had to be equal to those in rich urban districts. It didn’t say “substantially equal,” and Gov. Mike Huckabee, for one, took the Supreme Court at its literal word. He had been a foe of consolidation and suddenly became its most strident champion ever. He wanted to abolish school districts with fewer than 1,500 students on the theory that if the state had to offer kids at Lake View and Alpena the same array of courses available at Central, or Fort Smith Northside, it would require a bigger tax increase than people could bear or that he would support.

The courts had not mandated or even deliberated on the issue. Although the Constitution requires an “efficient” school system, the lawyers in the case didn’t argue it, and when one Supreme Court justice asked if equality would require consolidation, the most prominent attorney for the plaintiffs said it wasn’t an issue.

Still, Huckabee succeeded in making consolidation the touchstone of the special legislative session that he called in December to put the state in compliance with the court’s order. (The court expected the issues to be resolved in the regular session of 2003, leaving time, it said, for the laws and taxes to be fully implemented before its mandate was issued on Jan. 1, 2004.)

In the end, the Legislature did pass a law abolishing school districts with fewer than 350 students — nearly 60 of the state’s 308 districts. It was the first time that the Legislature had ever abolished school districts on its own. Last year, it gave the governor’s Education Department the power to consolidate districts that failed to meet state standards. Huckabee refused to sign the law, allowing it to become law without his signature. He declared the law inadequate and said he would not support or sign tax laws enacted by the Legislature because too much of the money would be wasted on small, inefficient schools.

Despite protests from some lawmakers against yet another regressive tax increase, the Legislature determined to pay for the reforms primarily by adding another 7/8th-cent to the existing 5 1/8-cent state sales tax. The tax was broadened somewhat to apply to a handful of services that were previously exempt.

While the legislative session was raucous and often aimless, it demonstrated an overwhelming consensus for the first time that Arkansas schools were not only inadequate but that the state failed utterly to make the outcomes in the schools anywhere near equal. A conservative Republican leader from populous and relatively wealthy (and white) northwest Arkansas said his region had to recognize that far more of the state’s meager resources were going to have to be transferred to poorer regions, namely eastern and southern Arkansas where facilities, teacher pay and qualifications were much lower and where — no surprise — average test scores on standardized tests were much lower. Remarkably, a Legislature dominated by the other half of the state passed a school-aid formula that does transfer somewhat more wealth to the poor schools in the blighted south and east.

Despite a bludgeoning in the media, the Legislature enacted a raft of laws aimed at obliging the court’s order: starting with the distribution of state aid to schools on the basis of what was needed to provide good school programs rather than on the old per-pupil basis. It passed a law requiring all high schools to offer Advanced Placement courses. (Central High already offered 25, while many high schools offered none.) It provided that the state would slash other government programs to pay for school reforms if new taxes aren’t sufficient. Though it had nothing to do with addressing the court’s mandate and it did it to mollify a phalanx of big-business interests, the Legislature imposed another layer of standardized national tests on the schools, which will reinforce the common perception that schools are not performing.

But the principal underlying failure of the schools that brought the unreserved condemnation of a trial judge and a unanimous Supreme Court still lays largely unaddressed except for a significant but modest increase in poor schools’ share of state aid and some money for preschool programs.

The celebrated Central High School manifested the failings nearly as much as other schools. Poor children, primarily African-Americans, are not getting much out of the schools. About 54 percent of the 2,116 students at Central are black. While some prove to be extraordinarily high achievers — a higher ratio than other Little Rock schools and elsewhere — most of the students fall far short. To settle a desegregation suit 15 years ago the state awarded special aid and loans to Little Rock to close the gap between white and black achievement. The district made little progress. The failure begins in kindergarten and the first grade when children come to unmanageable classes bearing none of the advantages of stable and literate homes and every known frailty.

Consultants hired by the Legislature to tell them what an adequate education was and how it could be achieved strongly recommended that the state invest in preschool programs for all children or, if not, for all those who were disadvantaged and that the schools have no more than 15 children in kindergarten through the third grade classes, a size that teachers might begin to control and to teach.

The Legislature allotted $40 million to experiment with preschool programs, though it quickly abandoned the small classes because it would be costly and superintendents in the northwestern schools said that it would not be as beneficial there and they simply did not have the classroom space.

Now, two former Supreme Court judges will determine how close these successes and failures come to obliging the Constitution.

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