Columns » John Brummett

Here's your local control

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We in Arkansas share something fundamental with our nation’s president and vice president. They don’t pay much attention to the U.S. Constitution. We don’t pay much attention to our state Constitution.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney search and seize our telephone records. They do so in plain defiance of citizen protections in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

We in Arkansas cling to notions of controlling public education at the local level. We do so in plain defiance of the state constitution and the Supreme Court, which declare without equivocation that education is the state’s responsibility.

Heeding the U.S. Constitution would prove inconvenient to the manner in which George W. and Dick want to combat terrorists. Heeding the state constitution would prove inconvenient in Arkansas to our embedded culture and custom.

Leave aside for now the Bush-Cheney abuse. I’m referring for these purposes to matters in state and local news.

There’s the little Saline County place called Paron that is trying to keep open its tiny high school though it admits it cannot teach all the courses the state requires high schools to teach.

There’s Asa Hutchinson, desperate to get competitive in the governor’s race and pandering to Paron to try to make inroads against Attorney General Mike Beebe throughout rural Arkansas.

As a constitutionally obligated legal advisor, Beebe’s office was forced to oppose special legislative dispensation for Paron. Mike Huckabee’s education officials took the same responsible position, though the Huckabee defense of Beebe has not been forthcoming.

Paron’s defenders cite long bus rides to Bryant. But state law requires equal opportunity, not equal convenience.

We all go through life making trade-offs. As a city dweller, I deal with noise and crime and traffic. I choose the lifestyle for other advantages. Rural dwellers enjoy pastoral peace and quiet. But maybe they must drive a greater distance to Wal-Mart. Maybe their high school kids must take a longer bus ride.

Paron advocates say that perhaps local high school students who want courses not offered at Paron could be transported to Bryant for those classes. But they say that transportation to Bryant would be unfair if applied to the high school student body as a whole.

In other words, this supposed unfairness should be extended only to kids uppity enough to invoke their full constitutional right to seek an educational opportunity beyond that of their schoolmates but equal to that offered elsewhere.

There remains this curious idea that a school has a right to exist and that a school’s mere existence is inherently virtuous. But there is only one inherently virtuous constitutional right in the public education equation. It belongs to the kid who wants as good an educational opportunity as the next.

But Paron’s kids have tested well, we’re told. That’s splendid. And it’s all the more reason to offer them a full curriculum.

Still, here’s a prediction, grounded in a long history of watching rural political brush fires grow out of control in Arkansas: By fall, Beebe will be compelled by political pressure to disavow his office’s position.

I would not be terribly surprised to find him and Hutchinson running over each other to see which can be first to stand in front of the opening-day bus hauling Paron’s high schoolers to Bryant.

There’s always an honest solution: Simply repeal the constitutional article about the state’s responsibility for education and replace it with one saying that public education is the responsibility of autonomous local school districts.

In exchange, the state could be spared the nearly $1.7 billion it sends annually to those school districts. Local patrons could make up the money through their property taxes.

Think what state government could do with an unencumbered $1.7 billion. It could provide for a world-class rainy day fund, eliminate the sales tax on groceries, grant generous tax rebates, establish a whale of an economic development superfund and endow the best-funded colleges in the region.

Except that legislators might spend it all on football stadiums and field houses for their locally controlled little schools.

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