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School elections: Why now? 

Benji Hardy has written for the Arkansas Blog about the work of ForwARd Arkansas, a Walton- and Rockefeller Foundation-financed project to develop a plan to improve public education.

As Hardy noted, the final plan represented a compromise and avoided some hot-button topics (charter schools, for example) while favoring apple pie ideas like pre-K education and healthy children.

But there was this glaring sentence: "Change the timing of school board elections to coincide with state or district elections."

This has nothing to do with school excellence. It is a political stinker in the woodpile, a sign of the agenda of the Walton/Billionaire Boys Club school "reform" posse. They'll stop at nothing to achieve this long, long quest. Why? To cut their tax bill.

On Thursday, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to endorse the plan. Several days later, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page singled out the election change for praise. The page is dictated philosophically by its publisher, school "reform" advocate Walter Hussman, whose family has darkened the doors of few schools public or private in Little Rock. But he's expert enough to be sure that killing teacher unions, killing the Little Rock School District and otherwise blowing up the egalitarian public school system with privately run charter schools are the solutions to education woes. Never mind addressing the root problem — impoverished, dysfunctional families who've yet to be lifted systematically by any school yet devised, be it KIPP, eStem or a utopian Waltonia.)

The D-G wrote:

"The unions will hate such a move. They like it when their people vote, and nobody else. That way they can hand-pick the school board."

This is either dishonest or uninformed. There is but one "union" involved in education in Arkansas: the Arkansas Education Association. It has never had more than four or five affiliates that served as anything akin to a union. That number is now down to two, IF you count the Little Rock Education Association, which now works in a district without a school board and has been pretty well stripped of its power. The Little Rock and Pulaski teacher groups did enjoy some (but not universal) success in school elections now and then, but it was more due to peculiarities of district shape and demography (black voters rose up in unison against a Chamber of Commerce-orchestrated takeover in Little Rock) than anything else. In any case, neither district now has a school board. But statewide? It's about the money or, more specifically, school property taxes.

Conservatives believe general election votes — populated by huge numbers of people without a stake in the schools — will regularly kill tax votes and strangle school budgets they believe are bloated. I suspect they are onto something, which is one reason why school superintendents and school boards (management, not labor, please note) have long favored separate school elections. Despite that, tax votes often go down in flames in September. Conservatives think school budgets can be shrunk and I believe the reformers think this will set the districts up for more privatization (profitization) by the corporate charter operators yearning to grab tax dollars with scant accountability.

Separate school elections have been law for more than a half-century, though they were moved in 1987 from March to September. The legislature recently gave school districts the option to have November elections, but none has.

There's a practical reason to keep elections separate. Ask county clerks. School district boundary lines (there are more than 200 districts in Arkansas) have little relationship to other governmental boundaries. Jonesboro has five school districts overlaid on a city government elected by zones. The Little Rock School District covers only a portion of the city and, should elections return, its zones also cross many other zone boundary lines. Drawing up ballots would be a nightmare. The clerks' opposition — along with powerful school administrators — have so far foiled a forced move of school elections.

The fact that the election issue was buried, without explanation, in the ForwARd recommendations is a sign to me that the billionaires are firmly in control. They haven't retreated from their aim of charterizing districts, killing the remnants of organized teacher groups and putting the brakes on school spending by whatever means possible. They have a Republican legislature inclined to go along. But we've learned before that the school administrators — and the little industries they control across the state — are one of the state's most formidable lobbies (excepting those from despised Pulaski County).

Changing election dates is about improving schools? About taking on the evil "unions"? Don't be fooled.

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