Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Monopoly vs. choice, When our ‘leaders’ forget the past

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“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”

–George Orwell, 1984

Say what you will about Johnny Key, the man is brave enough to take the slings and arrows that come with making tough but necessary decisions. At last week’s Board of Education meeting, his critics had the opportunity to chastise him publicly about his actions concerning the Little Rock School District in front of the cameras and reporters, even calling for his resignation. By their insulting rhetoric, you would have thought they wanted to throw him to the lions.

Their reasoning: How dare Johnny Key act like an education commissioner, and decide who’ll run Little Rock’s schools in the coming years? After all, the state had to take over the district because it was failing far too many students. Last year Johnny Key brought in the more-than-able Baker Kurrus to set things almost right. (Today’s critics were vociferously opposed to that decision then.) And now Johnny Key wants somebody from the academic world to take schools to the next level.

It seems the louder opposition to education reform in Little Rock comes prominently from one corner: the corner of those who no longer call the shots. For good, but maybe not best example, there’s the always quotable Greg Adams, a former school board member who’s no longer on the school board now that it’s been disbanded. Then there are Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield, both state senators–and both among the champions of the teachers’ unions.

If the hyperbole they use wasn’t so outrageous, it’d only be annoying. But it’s got to the point of being offensive. Here’s Joyce Elliott complaining about charter schools at the board meeting last week:

“When I say parallel school systems, that takes me back to 1957 when I was starting school, when we were under a racist school district ordered by law and that we were trying to change. Here we are, more segregated than we were in the late 1970s and ’80s.”

Wow. Imagine an African American leader and politician using the 1957 Little Rock Crisis to keep black kids from going to better schools.

Fact: There are waiting lists to get into Little Rock’s very public charter schools, some of them thousands of names long. One in particular stands out: the list to get into eStem, which is 6,000 names long. And two-thirds of them black kids. Joyce Elliott has some explaining to do to the community.

Here’s Linda Chesterfield, also chiding the Board of Education:

“Your track record is not great.”

Now we’ve come to the issue.

The track record.

Glad the senator brought it up.

For years now, for decades now, for generations now, Little Rock’s school district has tried the monopoly model for its schools. Ever since the one-room schoolhouse, the conventional wisdom in America is that schools, just like utility companies, were best operated as monopolies without the cost of any duplication. For years that worked well enough for schools. But that was before teachers’ unions became so powerful and effectively took control of many urban school districts.

All these years after this monopoly model became the norm, what did Little Rock’s families get for their pains, efforts and tax money? The district you see now, which is very much in need of saving.

Before the state took over, Little Rock’s district was losing families of means. Parents looked around, saw the schools failing, and decided they could do something about it, if only for their children. They chose private schools. Or they sold the house and moved to Cabot or Bryant. At least those who could afford it did.

At that point, the old model for schools began breaking down. And families that couldn’t afford private schools or a place in Cabot were stuck. To give those lower-income families an option for a free, public education, charter schools began to spring up all across America, and in Arkansas, too. Now those “leaders” who want to shut down charter schools are effectively saying they want to deny thousands of kids a chance to go to high-performing schools. And a lot of black kids at that. How do they sleep at night?

Maybe they don’t. Maybe they stay awake fretting about not having their union-backed friends on the school board. And figuring out a way to get back into power. Even if that means losing another generation, or two, of children. Nobody loses power without sound and fury. And that strong desire for power can blur altruism. And history.

One word about Baker Kurrus’ comments in the paper the other day about not needing charter schools because “You wouldn’t build two water systems to see which one works best.”

Not a great analogy for somebody of Mr. Kurrus’ knowledge and experience. Mostly because charter schools are all independent. They aren’t a part of a system; eStem and, say, LISA Academy aren’t connected. There is no parallel school system, as Joyce Elliott complains, because there’s only one system, and another group of unconnected charter schools. Unlike a parallel school system, these charter schools compete with each other for students. They also compete with private schools, and a significant number of students have come back to the public system in the charter schools, having left the private ones. And since charter schools give everyone an equal chance at admission, they end up with both the affluent and the poor, black and white, and an overall diverse student body. We think getting more kids into public education is a good thing, and it allows families to get their kids educated for the taxes they already pay.

Regardless of politics, people need to ask what’s best for the kids, not what’s best for the teachers’ unions, politicians or others with a vested interest.

Ask yourself this: Was the monopoly model that got us to this point working? Should we try something different in an attempt to educate our young people?

If you’re having trouble with an answer, just look around.

Editorial on 05/17/2016

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