Arkansas law allows school districts that have been in desegregation lawsuits to exempt themselves from the school choice act of 2015 that lets parents transfer for any reason — be it racial flight, to seek a better football team or even academics.
18 districts, including Forrest City, have claimed exemption from the law.
Yesterday, the state Board of Education said to hell with the law and allowed a student transfer from Forrest City, one of the 18, to Palestine-Wheatley. The vote was 3-2, with several members absent. The prevailing voters included Asa Hutchinson appointees Brett Williamson and Charisse Dean. Leading the charge was a Beebe appointee Dianne Zook, naturally. She’s wife of the head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce business lobby and has never met a charter school or similar “choice” she didn’t like. She’s the aunt of Gary Newton, the Walton-paid lobbyist who was in the middle of the legislation to privatize the Little Rock School District. Walton money — through then-senator and now education commissioner Johnny Key — drove the school choice legislation to allow unfettered transfers, with limited exceptions now judged meaningless by the state Board. Walton money is believed to have financed legal battles around the state to allow free flight from school districts.
It is now apparent that, depending on who votes, the state Board of Education will decide which laws to obey and which should be ignored. Nice lesson for students. Good thing the board doesn’t have to take proficiency tests.
One further contrarian thought: The state board majority seemed to decide the issue on the basis that the mother making the request knew what was best for her child. It is no comment on the specific case to say generally to that proposition: Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t yet let parents grade children in school, but with Dianne Zook in charge, that could come next.
Zook said the decisive factor for her was race. She found it important that a black mother wanted to leave the majority black Forrest City District for the majority white Palestine-Wheatley district. Palestine has higher test scores overall. It didn’t come up yesterday, but scores for black students in the respective districts are not dramatically different — a 50 percent achieving rate in Palestine for about 60 black students versus 46 percent in Forrest City for about 1,200 students in literacy and math.
No matter for the state Board. Mama knows best. The law was ignored. Transfer approved. I hope some day Brett Williamson gets to vote on a transfer from his El Dorado school district — another claiming exemption — to one of the white flight neighboring districts in his neck of the woods. Will Mama know best then, too, and the law be found to be flexible?