by Max Brantley
The Little Rock District has always made a good case that the state is bound permanently to support the original magnet schools devised as part of the 1989 school settlement to attract to problematic parts of town students who otherwise might have fled the district, as well as to bring in students from neighboring majority-white districts in North Little Rock and Pulaski County.
The push for charter schools has hurt some of the magnet schools, particularly at the middle school level. North Little Rock is now majority black. Pulaski County has its own set of problems, including a strong movement to separate Jacksonville.
Even some of the proponents of magnet schools, some significant ones I can tell you, have begun rethinking the future of these schools.
So up steps Heller with an idea. If the state only had a rational and fair system of providing support for 1) teachers' health insurance and retirement benefits and 2) school transportation, Little Rock might not need the extra money the state has spent on these two items in support of the magnet school portion of the desegregation lawsuit settlement. (I read between the lines that Little Rock would still get the $20 million or so, but just as part of a statewide formula that lifted all school districts, too, not as desegregation money.)
Nice try. We've written before what a puny amount the state provides generally in support of teacher health insurance — far less than it provides other state employees. Bus support also has been criticized for failing to have a rational relationship to transportation .
Why not equalize those programs statewide, Heller asks. Such a plan would hold Little Rock harmless by providing the same money through a different categorical program rather than desegregation aid. It would, more importantly, help everyone else, including the politically potent charter schools. It's a crafty idea. What school official wouldn't like more financial support for teacher benefits and buses? Where do we sign up?
One tiny problem: Accomplishing this goal would mean additional state spending overall and that would require legislative approval. Even if you took the Little Rock School District precipitating factor out of the equation — and even if it would bring some overdue fairness to teacher benefits — it is hard to see additional spending as a starter in the current political climate. Far more popular is Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's vow to end aid to Little Rock once and and for all. The state has by no means cured its discriminatory acts against Little Rock. It's even set about new ones. But the federal courts these days exhibit little concern with history or present-day reality. Things have changed, Chief Justice John Roberts insists.
PS — Couldn't help but note in another article that new Superintendent Dexter Suggs (still haven't heard back from him about a provocative note he sent to the teachers union president that fell into my hands) proposes to establish a gifted students academy. Sounds a little like a magnet school, but one created without special state assistance.