Columns » Max Brantley

Little Rock school tax? No deal.

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State Education Commissioner Johnny Key - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • State Education Commissioner Johnny Key

The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is busy back-room politicking and — again — supporters of democratic public schools should be wary.

The chamber is calling in people who matter — I don't mean me — to sell them on Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore's idea to call an election in the state-run school district to extend the current school property tax millage.

It will be sold on the familiar library tax election model: This is NOT a tax increase. It's just a little ol' refinancing plan. That is, as ever, disingenuous.

To raise $160 million more for school construction means adding 14 years of assessment of 12.4 mills in property tax pledged to construction, at a cost of $14 million to $21 million a year. On the high end, that's more than a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in added taxes.

Some construction is needed, particularly a new high school in Southwest Little Rock. But my vote today would be no because we have no guarantee that there will be anything resembling a Little Rock School District in 14 years.

Look no farther than the legislature and State Education Commissioner Johnny Key. They are in thrall of the Walton Family Foundation "school choice" movement. They, their paid lobbyists and sympathizers — including, significantly, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce — drove the state takeover of the Little Rock School District for test-score shortcomings at six of 48 schools (and for their contempt for the majority black school board). Key, who carried Walton legislation while a senator, has made clear that meeting the test score requirement is non-negotiable for the Little Rock School District to once again have its own school board.

Meanwhile, Key and the nominal education professionals in his department continue to forgive worse performance by charter schools. Just last week, the Little Rock Preparatory Academy was given a three-year extension despite failure to come close to proficiency in test scores since the privately run school was founded in 2009. Yes, it targets poor black students. Yes, many of its parents seem to like the school. Yes, I'm sure intentions are good. But you could say the same about the "failing" schools, parents and teachers in the Little Rock School District, but they get no forbearance despite better test scores.

Little Rock instead gets the lash. Key and the education establishment continue to approve expanded charter operations that take children away from the Little Rock School District absent any showing of superior academic results. The Waltons and the state pay for new charter school buildings in a district with an oversupply of classrooms and they wreck such notably successful schools as Carver Magnet on the East Side, within hailing district of the massively expanded eStem charter school.

Legislative malice abounds. A bill will be introduced to allow firing Little Rock teachers without cause. There's less concern about the uncertified teachers at charter schools. The agenda undoubtedly will include a broadening of school vouchers. Likely to return in some form, too, is the bill beaten in 2015 that would have allowed privatizing of the Little Rock School District. The so-called opportunity school district would have been mostly an opportunity for private charter operators to rake public tax money. It's been a disaster in other cities (Memphis and New Orleans, to name two). Georgia voters smelled this bad coffee and defeated it in an election this year.

So. Do I want to approve a quarter-billion-dollar tax increase to build shiny new buildings that could be soon taken over by unproven charter school management corporations, at least one of which is known for advancing creationism in its science curriculum in another state?

NO! And I can't see feeling otherwise without a guarantee that 1) the Little Rock School District will be a true public school district with voters in control; 2) that the Southwest high school is the top construction priority, instead of something for kids in the chief Walton lobbyist's preferred upscale neighborhood; and 3) the state will stop playing favorites in school accountability. I doubt Johnny Key, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce or, most important, the Walton Family Foundation is prepared to make such a promise. I also know I am not alone in my ill feelings among traditional school tax supporters (diminished though we might be by age, transfer of support to charter and private schools, and a steady dose of LRSD poison in the daily newspaper).


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