Columns » Max Brantley

Baghdad in LR?

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The business elite of Little Rock declared war on Little Rock school teachers and lost. They’ll be lucky if they don’t reap the whirlwind, a la George Bush in Iraq.

Only one of three business-anointed candidates won election to the school board and the one, Melanie Fox, triumphed despite chamber of commerce support. She had deep family pockets, a superior organization and an admirable record of school involvement. Still, she was resoundingly rejected on account of her heavy-handed business backing in Hillcrest, a bastion of public school support.

Partly because many of them don’t send their kids to public schools, the chamber crowd decided that bad teachers are the only thing holding back achievement in the Little Rock School District (not poverty, race, broken families and all the other indicators with which the district is overrepresented). They also believe that bad teachers are the sole fault of the Classroom Teachers Association, the union that bargains for teachers.

There are bad teachers in the district. They are at least partly, if not largely, the fault of administrators who won’t do the supervision and documentation necessary to root them out.

Unreasoning hatred of the union — not to mention money from the Walton family and Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman — blinded the business community. They don’t see the many parents who are reasonably satisfied with the School District, though not always happy with decisions of the School Board and the autocratic superintendent. They don’t see the justified mortal offense taken by teachers who labor long hours, augment supplies from their own pockets and produce outstanding students. These teachers are the CTA. Slackers motivated only by money are the exception, despite what the chamber crowd believes.

The CTA has rarely been much of a factor in school elections, but this year’s business bullying changed that. The CTA, Acorn and public school parents fought back. Unusually large turnouts produced a union-friendly black board majority (a racial composition that Hussman’s newspaper seems to suggest is somehow alarming in a majority black district). The election results were not about race, but unhappiness with the current board. It’s clear that significant numbers of whites voted for winning black candidates and against the business slate, whatever their color.

Voters can read. They know that the newspaper publisher, who sent his own kids to private school, got a pet merit pay project secretly started in the schools. They know that the Waltons rented the Little Rock Public Education Foundation as a lobbying arm for its long-range goal of charterizing public schools. They know the Waltons also finance merit pay projects. They know a Walton-financed UA department that hates unions and loves charter schools was set to evaluate the Waltons’ merit pay experiment. They now also know that Jim Walton, who lives in Bentonville, sent a contribution to a board candidate distinguished only by his crude remark to union members in a public meeting. You need only look at Wal-Mart pay and benefits and its repeat wage-and-hour violations to conclude that a lucky Wal-Mart heir’s “merit pay” plan, in the long run, is about paying teachers less, not more.

I don’t want the union or John Walker, the civil rights lawyer, to run the School District any more than I want Jim Walton or Walter Hussman to run it. I hope new board members will represent every sector of the community, not just teachers. But if they don’t, the business elite can thank themselves for energizing voters by their sneering contempt for teachers and their advocates.

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