Little Rock Needs Intervention from Its Intervenors

I’m not a lawyer, though I actually did play one on TV.

My three semester toe-in-the-water of evening law school ended when I was told by my property teacher who would become a federal judge, “Mr. Newton, this is the most brilliant paper I have ever read, that says absolutely nothing.” By the time I realized that wasn’t a compliment, I knew my legal career had ended before it began.

Still, because my word processing skills were far stronger than my ability to wait tables, for a dozen years, I supported my entertainment industry ambitions and eventually my young family by working evenings in some of LA’s most prestigious law firms. There, I learned firsthand that even the best and brightest lawyers from the nation’s finest schools could be dependent upon a moonlighting actor to add basic grammar and punctuation and form and meaning to their poorly written briefs.

In other words, make sense of their intentions, then make their intentions make sense.

All that said, I have amassed just enough experience to deliver the following curbstone legal question/opinion.

Why has no one filed a class action against the individuals and/or institutions responsible for denying thousands of our citizens proximate public education?

If one area of town was refused basic water, sewer, trash pick-up, roads, drainage and/or police/fire protection, it would rightfully be considered unjust and actionable. Why then do we allow the largest local government entity in the state to deny basic public education to 2/7 of its population?

I am not a litigious person. In fact, I believe it is the Little Rock School District’s perpetual presence in federal court, fomented by their retained and intervening attorneys, which has created the 31-year codependency we seem incapable of breaking.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the district’s initial legal action was prompted by our forebears’ immoral and illegal denial of equitable public education to a particular group. $1.2 billion later, the very thing the district sought to end, it now perpetuates on another class of citizens, while keeping its most vulnerable students trapped in under or non-performing schools.

It’s nothing short of madness, enabled by the apathy of a community which refuses to acknowledge that it is dying a slow but certain death because it won’t see to it that all of its children immediately receive an excellent education.

Without a viable public option, our family alone faces potentially $15,000 to $24,000 per year in private school tuition. That’s more than my entire four years at Fayetteville. Multiply it by seven more years, and we’re looking at potentially $150,000 just to get our kids through high school. By then, college tuition/room/board could actually be a relief. At least then, they’ll be eligible for scholarships.

This morning (March 8th), the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette‘s Cynthia Howell reported that the less than three-year old Don Roberts Elementary, the largest elementary school in the Little Rock School District, will discontinue PreK because the number of its zoned enrollment has exceeded capacity. Those PreK classrooms account for essentially 10% of the student population. With this trend, what will they do next year? Cut Kindergarten? Without action, it’s either that or cut from every grade.

It’s not like the district didn’t see this coming. Seven years ago, we were denied PreK at our zoned elementary school (Fulbright) because it was full.

West Little Rock parents, specifically those at Don Roberts, now cannot begin public education at any level in their community. No PreK. No middle school. No high school.

Despite getting beaten handily on every major issue at the district court level, the Little Rock School Board followed their attorney’s advice to appeal their fight with charter schools to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, all in the name of saving their vaunted magnet schools.

Most of these schools are “magnets” in name only. The school in Little Rock with the best “magnet” performance, even though it isn’t one, is Don Roberts. Inexplicably, by turning a blind or prejudiced eye to its success, the district continues to drive away those parents with the will or the way for choice.

For far too long, Joshua Intervenor and Representative John Walker’s influence has hung like the sword of Damocles over this district. His words below offer a plausible reason why the administration and board have been so slow to act in West Little Rock.

“Finally, I am sure you are aware that I am a Legislator, that you know who I am and that I am fiercely protected (sic) of the interests of disadvantaged children, especially those who were disfavored by the school district’s contemptable disregard of the promised use of the last bond money voted upon by the citizens of the community. Rather than strengthen the disadvantaged schools as promised in the bond issue, the district used those funds to build Roberts and then to open it essentially as a school for affluent upper income children of a different race.”

For the record, there are six schools in West Little Rock (Zones 4 and 5) and 46 in the rest of the city. Every other zone has more than double the schools of Zone 4, while Zone 1 (downtown) has 14. Per pupil spending is the same for students across the district. If existing schools weren’t/aren’t performing, it’s not the fault of those who had/have no school.

With the recent superintendent search, a new generation of Little Rock parents across the political spectrum demonstrated that they simply are not going to take it anymore. Corruption in any guise is still corruption. We must move beyond the Little Rock School District’s failed desegregation lawsuit, its “get thee from me” 1989 settlement, its continued drain on the state coffers, and its ongoing abdication of leadership to the courts and lawyers.

Put simply, Little Rock needs an intervention from its intervenors and attorneys.

Together, parents, employers, property taxpayers, and citizens can help the board sustain and heighten the courage it demonstrated with Tuesday night’s vote, so it may immediately get about the business of excellently educating all of our children. Anything less is unacceptable.

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