Columns » Max Brantley

1957 all over again

Last week, the State Board of Education voted to ignore federal courts and allow school district transfers that will encourage segregation.

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1957: Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Nine students into Central High School. - NATIONAL ARCHIVES
  • National Archives
  • 1957: Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Nine students into Central High School.

At historic Central High School, two former presidents and a former British prime minister were in the audience last Thursday as three members of the Little Rock Nine talked about how they'd integrated the all-white high school 59 years ago with the help of federal troops after state officials resisted a federal court desegregation order.

On the very same day a few blocks away, the State Board of Education voted to ignore federal courts and allow school district transfers that will encourage segregation. Diane Zook, an enemy of democratically controlled public schools in Little Rock, led the board defiance of federal courts.

The bare facts: A black family in Jacksonville wanted to send a child to school in much whiter Cabot, which the family believed a better environment. The new Jacksonville North Pulaski School District, created by separation from the Pulaski County School District, did so under a federal court agreement that it would not participate in the state school choice law that allows interdistrict transfers. That portion of Pulaski County remains under court supervision because it hasn't been declared desegregated and fears free transfers would add to segregation.

Zook, who is no lawyer, said she didn't care what the court agreement said. She wanted to side with parents. If there is to be further court action, let the school district (and state) bear the burden, she said. And it was done.

Then came a request from a white family that lives in El Dorado, about 50-50 black/white, to go to the mostly white Parkers Chapel School District. The family already had used a dubious guardianship, through an aunt, for the child to flee El Dorado. El Dorado is under a federal desegregation order and, by the clear language of state law, chooses to opt out of the transfer law. It fears acceleration of the historic flight of whites to suburban districts in Union County.

The Board of Education momentarily was discombobulated. New Board member Fitz Hill was particularly confused and at first joined a majority vote against the El Dorado transfer. But after a lunch break, the Hutchinson appointee reconsidered, perhaps refreshed by someone on what was expected of him. Hill and other members of the board were vetted before selection by Gov. Hutchinson. They are expected to support the choice/charter school agenda pushed by the Walton Family Foundation, its paid lobbyists and the Hutchinson administration. After the brief hiccup, the El Dorado transfers were approved, too, on a revote. Supporters included Brett Williamson of El Dorado, who owes his livelihood to the Murphy family fortune that is also part of the Billionaire Boys Club that backs school "choice." Allen Roberts, a lawyer for El Dorado, called the state board vote "radically segregationist." He and others will study the situation for a possible court appeal.

Absent court intervention, the floodgates are now open to wholesale transfers in Jacksonville and El Dorado and in the other districts in the state that thought they were protected from state-sanctioned white flight by past federal court desegregation cases.

In a larger sense, it's only a loss on the margins. The State Board of Education has already demonstrated it will approve just about anything that calls itself a charter school, no matter the segregative effect — be it a school leaving the poor neighborhood it nominally was designed to serve to move to upscale western Little Rock or an elite quasi-private charter school in Northwest Arkansas short on enrollment of poor and minority students

As long as Asa Hutchinson is governor, white privilege, income privilege and animus toward the majority black and poor Little Rock School District will continue. The Waltons' former legislative tool, Johnny Key, is now education commissioner. He is expected to finish the job intended by 2015 legislation and eventually turn operation of the Little Rock district over to private operators. They'll answer to no one and use corporate shields to further guard against accountability.

Rich folks need not worry. If they can't get a charter school tailored to their needs and neighborhood, they can transfer anywhere they want in post-racial Arkansas, federal courts and resegregation be damned.

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