Columns » Max Brantley

The education legislature

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Republican political control in Arkansas means many things: lots of gun bills, lots of anti-abortion bills, lots of efforts to make religious belief law, such as discrimination against gay people.

Moneyed interests must be served, of course. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has pointedly omitted the working poor — the third of the Arkansas population earning less than $21,000 a year — from income tax cuts. This week or next, the legislature will restore all of a 2013 capital gains tax cut, including a total exemption for profits over $10 million.

But something much larger is at work in education.

The legislature has gutted the law that required consolidation of school districts that fall below 350 students. The inability of small districts to offer a full range of courses is evident in other legislation to allow districts not to offer courses required by the state curriculum if no one wants to take a course. You can easily imagine a school district discouraging a single student from signing up for, say, physics if it meant hiring another teacher.

The state has made no headway at teacher health insurance matching that of other state employees. The huge teacher cost diminishes the value of teacher pay, which in turn makes it harder to hire good teachers.

This legislature doesn't think any testing is necessary of home schoolers. And it wants to junk a national test of the Common Core curriculum (which also might get junked, along with new science standards and full U.S. history instruction.)

The commitment to the equality and adequacy standards of the landmark Lake View decision is waning. And there's no concern from the governor down about the erosion of support for pre-K education.

Then, late last week, House Education Chair Rep. Bruce Cozart, a conservative Republican, filed a bill supported by Walton Family Foundation-financed charter school lobbyists — Gary Newton of Arkansas Learns and Scott Smith of the Arkansas Public School Research Center. Cozart's bill would provide the tools to end the Little Rock School District and abolish its teachers union. It would establish an "achievement school district" in which schools or whole districts taken over by the state could be placed. Once there, no rules — including the fair dismissal law — would apply. The state could contract with unaccountable private organizations to operate the schools. Newton and Smith are also lobbying against a bill to make the open records law apply to such contractors.

The Little Rock School District, taken over because six of its 48 schools were judged in academic distress, could be placed in this "achievement district." The union would be gone. All teachers would be fire-at-will employees. There would be no school board ever again. The high Little Rock property tax millage would be given to the private companies. Voters would have no say.

It's a nuclear bomb drop on democracy.

In 10 years, the placement of New Orleans schools in a similar "recovery" school district has been a failure. There are a few good charter schools, some rotten ones and a mishmash of operators. The schools generally remain just about the worst in the state.

Reports are also negative about a Tennessee "achievement" school district.

Gov. Hutchinson apparently is on board with outsourcing public schools to private operators. He wants Johnny Key, a former senator with no schooling or experience in public education, to run the Education Department. Key is qualified by alliance with the Walton Family Foundation and the other wealthy Arkansans, such as Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman, who want to destroy the Little Rock School District and take local tax millions to use 25,000 students as lab rats for their pet school notions.

They will find that quite a few people in Little Rock don't have as low an opinion of local schools as the billionaires do (having put their kids in them) and would prefer to run them themselves.

Local control? Republicans like it except when they don't.

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