Columns » Max Brantley

Send in the segs

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The state Board of Education last week rejected requests from Camden Fairview, Hope, Lafayette County and Junction City to be exempt from the state law requiring students to be able to freely transfer between school districts.

All those majority black districts said they were controlled by past federal desegregation lawsuits. All said opening their districts to transfers would lead to white flight.

A 2017 state law said the state, rather than federal courts, could determine if a school district had made a valid claim for exemption. Attorneys from the Allen Roberts Law Firm in Camden contend this 2017 law is unconstitutional and expect to challenge the decisions in federal court.

The law firm argues that the state has an obligation not to approve policies that encourage racially identifiable school districts. In the heady days of the civil rights movement, courts could be depended on to rule just that way. The law firm quoted an Alabama decision:

"Put simply, the State cannot authorize segregative transfers and excuse that result based on the allegedly unbiased 'desires of the parent.'"

But the Arkansas Board of Education, acting on wishes of the legislature, rejects the rule of law, be it separation of powers or federal supremacy.

In Cooper v. Aaron, the landmark Little Rock school desegregation case, the U.S. Supreme Court said clearly that state officials may not act in ways that "nullify a federal court order."

But that was 1957. In 2018, lawyers for school districts attempting to maintain integration may have Cooper v. Aaron on their side, but they've lost the Arkansas legislature, the Arkansas governor and his appointees and, most likely, the Arkansas Supreme Court. It's like the 101st Airborne never rolled into Little Rock.

The state Board of Education decisions nearly complete a movement that began in a Malvern lawsuit and has been supported since by the Walton fortune and other Arkansas millionaires. They want to end universal public education as we once knew it as foundational to an equitable democracy. In time, it will be stripped of democratically elected school boards (as has already happened in Little Rock); teacher associations will be destroyed (they have meaningful power in only two or three Arkansas districts now); government spending will be reduced; schools will be turned over to profit-hungry private managers who use a high burn-rate of underpaid, inexperienced teachers to achieve desired bottom lines at charter schools (publicly financed quasi-private schools exempt from being required to take all comers), and students will be increasingly segregated by race and/or class. The school voucher movement is on the rise now, too, and got a lift from the legislature this week with still more diversion of tax money to private K-12 schools. Vouchers are what the billionaires wanted all along, but initial resistance brought charter schools as an intermediate step.

Simply: Appointees of the Arkansas governor sided with nullification of federal court authority. Gov. Orval Faubus, who created the 1957 crisis rather than being out-segged by Justice Jim Johnson, would be smiling today.

The decision came the same week UA Little Rock's Dr. Barclay Key's lecture to the History Institute on a lesser known school crisis. In 1967, 10 years after Central High, Little Rock segs fearing true school integration through the proposed "Oregon Plan" that decoupled schools from neighborhoods, retook control of the Little Rock School Board with backing of the real estate community, which liked segregated neighborhoods. Ousted were supposed liberals (including my future father-in-law, I should disclose). In came freedom of choice and, as a result, a civil rights lawsuit that spanned a half-century.

We've come full circle. The Waltons are cheering. Segregation is not only legal, it's encouraged. The holdouts in El Dorado, North Pulaski and some segments of Little Rock are under constant attack from Walton-paid lobbyists. In time, the state will come for them, too. The winners and loser in "choice" may not be as obvious as its defenders think.


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