Columns » Max Brantley

Targeting teachers

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The Hutchinson administration has riled the teachers union in the Little Rock School District.

The Little Rock Education Association, which has represented teachers in bargaining for more than 50 years, called an emergency meeting last week to discuss danger signals from Education Commissioner Johnny Key. He's the former Republican state senator named to run the state Department of Education by Republican Governor Hutchinson. He serves as the Little Rock "school board" since it was taken over by the state in 2015.

Republicans, particularly the billionaires who now effectively control education policy, hate teachers unions.

Little Rock is one of the last districts in the state with a union contract. The current contract ends Oct. 31. Will Key negotiate a new one? Teachers have doubts.

The employee policy manual developed by teachers and administrators last September still hasn't been signed by Key. Also telling was the sudden push by Key to dispute the LREA's annual April filing of membership. It must represent 50 percent of employees to be recognized as a bargaining agent.

A few weeks ago, Key's office questioned the figures. Friday, the LREA submitted new, audited figures.

Against the sweep of history, the treatment of teachers is insulting. In the racial turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s, the Arkansas Education Association and Little Rock teachers stood tall against the segregationists. As a father of two graduates of the Little Rock schools, I've known many LREA members. I knew them as people who ignored time clocks, dug in their own pockets for supplies and warmly embraced children of every color and need. They've been an important check against incompetent and dishonest superintendents.

But they have enemies. Teacher resistance was a key element in the defeat of Walton-backed and Hutchinson-supported legislation in 2015 that would have allowed a state takeover of the district for parceling out to private operators. Charterization still continues, if more slowly.

The challenge of LREA membership coincidentally arose at the same time an anti-union teachers group that has enjoyed Walton funding was buying advertising in the newspaper of another union enemy, the Democrat-Gazette's Walter Hussman, to recruit teachers away from the AEA.

To add to teachers' nervousness is talk about putting a Walton-financed charter high school in Northwest Little Rock. That site is promoted by a $237,000-a-year Walton lobbyist for a high school of some sort to serve upscale, white western Little Rock (and coincidentally do harm to Central High School, its excellence long inconvenient to the Waltons' criticism of the Little Rock School District.)

But the immediate concern is the teacher contract. It was pared down substantially during Baker Kurrus' tenure as superintendent, before his firing by Key for resisting charter school proliferation. The union also took a pay cut and backed a district tax increase despite fears that it was a ploy to infuse millions in fixup money into the district in advance of privatization.

For its cooperation, the union gets Hutchinson administration resistance. The people of the district? No hint from Hutchinson that we'll ever get our school district back.

Rejection of teachers stirred popular revolts in other states. Could it happen in Little Rock? Or Arkansas? Jared Henderson, the Democrat challenging Hutchinson, has outlined a specific way to make Arkansas a great place for teachers.

It could be a hotter issue still in the mayor's race in Little Rock. On the available record, Kurrus is the strongest friend of teachers in the race.

If Little Rock is to prosper, it must have a cohesive public school district, not a crazy-quilt of private schools operating with tax money. Teachers are the bedrock. If teachers aren't valued, the schools and the community can't expect respect either.

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