Columns » Max Brantley

The end of democracy in LR

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The state Board of Education was scheduled to talk this week about the Little Rock School District, under state control for two years because six of its 48 schools failed to meet an arbitrary pass rate on a standardized test.

Board member Jay Barth had the idea, because of progress in the district, to get the board to use its flexible powers to promise a return to local school board control in elections in May 2018.

Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who serves as the "school board" now, can't make such a decision unilaterally. He had to check with HIS boss, Governor Hutchinson, who now controls the majority of seats on the state board. He said no.

This means, barring surprises, the district will stay in state control for at least five years, maybe forever. A new state law changes the way school distress is measured. But it's certain to give the state board flexibility to control whatever district it wishes to control.

Backers of the school "choice" movement don't much like school boards. They like central authority. And they like choice for choice's sake; quality of schools and results are largely unimportant.

Barth hoped to send a positive signal to Little Rock school supporters unhappy about the state takeover. Instead, he got confirmation that the governor and Key don't want them to have their school board back. Key and Hutchinson undoubtedly fear a return of the majority black school board that so riled the Little Rock business. Those same white chamber of commerce establishment forces — many of whom have never sent a child to public schools — that pushed the state takeover are now asking voters to approve a tax plan to add some $600 million in property tax payments over 14 years. Some of this would go to buildings. The majority will be controlled by Key for any use he deems fit.

There's justifiable fear that Key and Co. want to get the buildings in shape for the eventual surrender of the Little Rock School District to a privatized operation such as exists in New Orleans. The Walton forces tried to legislate that in 2015. Meanwhile, Key is encouraging explosive (and LRSD damaging) growth of charter schools, the Waltons are financing charter school buildings and their chief lobbyist in town is singing the praises of anything and everything but the old Little Rock School District. Lurking in the wing is still further Little Rock charter expansion by a national private school chain.

We shoot our own feet in Little Rock. There's no greater proof of the sorry state of Little Rock schools than the speed with which rich, white chamber of commerce types run from them and encourage development in white flight suburbs. I just don't happen to share the racially infected negative view of Little Rock schools, which my own children attended.

But we continue to reward people who harm the community. The Little Rock City Board is just about to renew $300,000 in taxpayer subsidies (from the pennies of a city whose taxpayers are predominantly black and poor) to the same Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce that worked to end local school control. Their pennies will help pay salaries of people who also lobby against decent benefits and job protection for working people.

The city dole to the chamber is being restored thanks to a constitutional amendment crafted by the now-indicted former Sen. Jon Woods. City Manager Bruce Moore gave so little thought to the fact that some might object to another giveaway to the fat cats that he initially placed the vote on the corporate welfare on the board's "consent agenda." Even if the board has a perfunctory discussion, be assured the chamber will get its money, just like it got the school board.

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