Little Rock Schools

Teachers and their supporters picketed Thursday during a one-day strike outside the historic Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. — AP Photo/Andrew Demillo

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Teachers picketed outside the site of a historic desegregation and dozens of other Little Rock schools Thursday, walking out for the first time in more than three decades to protest the state’s control of the local school system and their loss of collective bargaining rights.

The strike in the 23,000-student district is the first in Little Rock since 1987 and follows the state Board of Education’s decision last month to strip the local teachers union of its bargaining power.

Though billed as a one-day strike, union leaders are leaving open the possibility that it could stretch longer in the school district whose enrollment is 55% Black.

“We know this is the first battle in a longer fight,” Little Rock Education Association President Teresa Knapp Gordon told reporters as teachers, students and parents waved signs and chanted outside Little Rock Central High School, which was desegregated by nine black students in 1957.

The union has called for the return of its bargaining power, but Thursday’s strike was focused more broadly on control of the schools. Arkansas took control of the district in 2015 because of low test scores at several schools. The Board of Education has voted to return the district to a local school board that will be elected in November 2020, but with the state maintaining some authority.

“In the (school) buildings, we can protect our kids, but if we don’t have protections for ourselves it’s very difficult to protect our kids from the way the state has been attempting to destroy our public schools here,” said Chris Dorer, a Central High School history teacher who was picketing outside.

The Little Rock School District said all its 41 schools remained open, but less than half of the district’s students attended class Thursday. Only a quarter of the district’s roughly 5,900 high school students attended.

More than 600 of the district’s roughly 1,800 teachers were absent Thursday, spokeswoman Pamela Smith said. Prior to the strike, the district had lined up hundreds of substitute teachers, along with hundreds of district and state education employees who could be redeployed to classrooms.

“While some are not in the classroom today, we are continuing education in a safe environment for our students and teachers,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who appointed eight of the state board’s nine members, said in a statement. “It is the constitutional responsibility of the state to ensure an equal and quality education to all of our students. That is what we all want and what we are working to achieve with the LRSD.”

The Associated Press

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