Ernest Dumas writes on the recent legislative session and one “accomplishment” — failure of school voucher bills. And it’s a good occasion to mention his new book, a memoir of six decades of covering politics in Arkansas.
By Ernest Dumas
Sure, the legislature, in concert with the governor, for the first time in its 200-year history shifted a substantial part of the Arkansas tax burden from the well-to-do and corporations to the lower classes, but didn’t the lawmakers also do something for the suffering masses?
Good question. Yes, they did, sort of. The Republican assembly didn’t do too much harm to Arkansas’s system of universal, free public education, the cherished legacy of the great Republican Party of the 19th century.
When the legislators were in the final stage of their labors in March, I lamented that they were about to pass two bills that mocked the party’s great mandate—inserted into the Constitution in 1868 after the war that ended slavery—that the state was duty-bound to provide a free and equal education in public schools for every child, black or white, rich or poor, without favor for any child or family. Gov. Hutchinson offered one of those bills, which would have pumped $17.5 million of the taxpayers’ money for the public schools into a five-year scheme to pay for kids in Little Rock and the other three districts in the county to leave public schools and go to nearly-all-white private schools. The governor’s nephew and the Senate president pro tempore, Jim Hendren, had a bill to spend another $3 million a year to send kids to private schools outside Pulaski County, to be expanded, like the governor’s plan, if it proved to be popular.
Shockingly, for whatever reason, neither bill mustered enough votes to pass. A handful of Republicans joined the little contingent of Democrats in the legislature in voting against the bills or else abstaining from voting. I prefer to think that the dissident Republicans were honoring the party’s greatest cause. When the GOP ran Arkansas for a time after the Civil War they adopted a constitution that singled out only one thing that the state was bound to spend money on: a good public-school education for every child, including the recent slave children. Here is how the education section began:
“A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence among all classes, being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the General Assembly shall establish and maintain a system of free schools, for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this State between the ages of five and twenty-one years, and the funds appropriated for the support of common schools shall be distributed to the several counties, in proportion to the number of children and youths therein between the ages of five and twenty-one years . . . but no religious or other sect or sects [read that: private interests] shall ever have any exclusive right to or control of any part of the school funds of this State.”
It meant little. The redeemers, conservative Democrats, soon regained power when Reconstruction ended, watered down the education article in the 1874 constitution and then rendered it meaningless by creating a public school system that basically educated white kids, particularly those who were lucky enough to live in a school district with lots of taxable property wealth. I was lucky enough in my latter school years to go to those schools, but not my black neighbors.
Now, the rage is not universal equality but something called “choice”—no, not for impregnated girls, but for parents who want their children going to school with a better class of kids and where school-average test scores supply a better graphic for their child’s learning. Choice now entails using school funds to operate charter schools that often draw white kids out of majority-black schools or those with a high quotient of poor kids, pay their private-school tuition, or else allow parents with the wherewithal to do it to take their kids out of interracial city schools and put them in neighboring school districts with majority white enrollments, where they are supposed to get a better education.
It is not a new idea. After the Little Rock school crisis in 1957 proved that schools were indeed going to have to integrate, most Southern states, including Arkansas, adopted a version of North Carolina’s “pupil-assignment law,” which eliminated statutory references to race and gave all parents the choice of applying to have their kids enrolled in schools other than those to which they were ordinarily assigned. The only applicants, of course, would be blacks wanting to go to white schools. School officials could use a set of factors to determine who was allowed to transfer to the white schools. One could be the impact of the transfer on the classroom learning environment. Few blacks were approved. But the courts said no, the law requires you to integrate, the only way to assure some measure of equality.
The premise of the charter-school and choice movements is that public schools are just somehow genetically flawed. The common theories are that public-school teachers are sorrier because they are protected by teacher unions or confounded by government rules imposed as a requirement for getting federal aid for schooling disadvantaged youngsters. In Arkansas, the chief advocate of charter schools was the Walmart family, which considered unions a threat to capitalism. Walmart closes stores if employees vote for union representation.
Another editorial the other day in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette cheered the wonderful charter schools, derogated public schools and answered a letter writer’s query about exactly why public schools were so bad and charter schools so good.
First, the editorial said, it’s teachers unions, which intimidate administrators in the public schools so much that they won’t terminate sorry teachers or make them do better and, second, mountains of silly government regulations make it hard for teachers to be good.
What teachers unions? Of Arkansas’s 269 school districts, exactly one, Little Rock, has a union that engages in contract bargaining, though it’s done only a little of that since the state Education Department for the fifth year in a row runs the city’s school system.* The union has never had the slightest control over firing or disciplining teachers. Administrators can terminate teachers whenever they have a case, which can be their failure to perform. The weakest link in the public schools is administrators, who too often are people who were desperate for relief from the burnout of teaching all day.
As for all those regulations that are keeping teachers from being good ones, it is mere legend. Teaching is very hard work, especially when your classroom has a high quotient of kids with physical and mental disabilities or those from poor households that provide no cultural or mental preparation for school.
The legislature and the governor this year might have helped those choiceless kids and parents by appropriating money for pre-kindergarten schooling, which has a history of working. Give them a D– for underperformance.
The Walton-owned education college at Fayetteville last month produced another of its studies showing the superiority of charter schools over public schools. Nearly every example it cites reflects the class and race of the student body, although the scholars who produce the studies never cite those figures.
When they insist that choice is not about race or class, you can be sure that it is about race and class.
*This column has been updated to make clearer that the Little Rock Education Association is the only local teacher’s union in Arkansas that acts as the bargaining agent for a public school district.