LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — 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.
“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 district vowed to keep schools open during the strike and lined up hundreds of substitute teachers, along with hundreds of district and state education employees who could be redeployed to classrooms.
State Education Secretary Johnny Key urged teachers to remain on the job and said a strike “does not promote learning.”
“Students learn best when qualified, highly effective teachers are present in the classroom and promote a safe and exciting learning environment,” Key said in a statement released Wednesday night.
The strike follows weeks of demonstrations over the state’s control of the district. Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have tweeted their support for the striking teachers. Teachers also planned to rally Thursday outside a Board of Education meeting and at the Capitol.
The only other teachers strike in the district was in 1987, when Little Rock students missed six days of school before a new two-year contract was approved.
Thursday’s strike follows similar actions elsewhere. A strike in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, canceled 11 days of classes for more than 300,000 students before a contract deal was reached on Oct. 31. And teachers in several states, including Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky, protested last year at state capitols over wages and other issues.