El Dorado's gusher 

I had written a column this week lamenting, again, the divide in the Little Rock School District. If the polarized camps don’t find some common ground eventually, we could face a public school district serving only disadvantaged students and a city rotting from that core.

But then came happier news from El Dorado.

Jubilant, even tearful high school students cheered the announcement there Monday morning of an unprecedented investment in kids. Murphy Oil, which bases a far-flung worldwide operation in El Dorado, promised to underwrite the cost of a college education for El Dorado High School graduates for the next 20 years.

You have to attend at least four years of high school in the city continuously to qualify. Attend K-12 in El Dorado and you get 100 percent of the tuition at the most expensive Arkansas public college, currently about $6,000, for five years. The subsidy drops 5 percent for each year a student isn’t enrolled in El Dorado schools to a minimum of 65 percent. There’s no grade or means test. An oil baron’s daughter can take the $6,000 to Yale.

All the company’s directors deserve credit for this $50 million commitment, but I think CEO Claiborne Deming was the driving force. I’ve written before about his public school advocacy, including support for cash incentives to El Dorado students for high test scores, beginning in elementary schools.

I grabbed a few minutes on the phone with Deming Tuesday morning. Though you couldn’t call us political soul mates, we’ve shared a passion for the promise of higher education.

I asked him what he’d say to potential questions from those who are pushing achievement-based scholarships to hold Arkansas students in Arkansas.

“The best thing you can do for a young person is open up the world to them. Let them see as many places as they can. If they choose to come back, we will have broader-educated, more interesting people. We don’t want to tie people here arbitrarily or unnecessarily. It needs to be their choice.” Deming added, “Heck, I chose to come here from Louisiana.”

Motivation? First, he said, “El Dorado is our home. What greater impact could we have than to impact lives of aspiring students.” Secondly, he said, it will make El Dorado a “more attractive, better place to live. If El Dorado does better, Murphy does better.”

That’s nice to say, but remember that Murphy, though a big player in El Dorado with 350 employees, has 7,000 workers worldwide. It remains in El Dorado thanks mostly to tradition and the Murphy family’s deep roots. Thanks for that, too.

I asked Deming about a political element.

There are six school districts in Union County. El Dorado, by far the largest with 4,400 students (and roughly 250 graduates each year), is about 56 percent black. The rest are majority white, except relatively distant Strong-Huttig. In years past, consolidation of small districts with El Dorado was opposed by the majority white districts. Parkers Chapel School District, which covers El Dorado’s major new residential growth, has 687 white students and 49 blacks.

Might this have been a consideration, to make El Dorado more attractive to those who have flown?

Deming said no. Simply, he said, “If you have a vibrant urban core, your whole area, your whole region is better off.”

Those words resonate beyond Champagnolle and Norphlet and Calion. We must hear them, too, in Little Rock.


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