Events today reminded me of another piece of legislation by Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville, who sponsored the resolution approved today affirming the legislature’s support for gay discrimination in federal law and the Arkansas Constitution.
He’s also lead sponsor of HB 2290, which would strip the governor of sole power to appoint the nine members of the state Board of Education and give the majority of appointments to legislative leaders — three each to the House and Senate leaders.
The law would immediately oust the current board. What’s the rush?
The Republican sponsorship might reflect nothing more than work in service to the Billionaire Boys Club’s desire to take over school regulation in Arkansas, particularly by opening the door wide to charter schools. Walton money is powering the “school reform” effort. Dotson is from the hometown of Walmart heir Jim Walton, the leader of the effort to remake public schools through charter schools and other options aimed at breaking up conventional public schools, particularly in districts like Little Rock with stronger teacher organizations.
The state Board has approved most charter school applications, but has moved judiciously and toughly in recent times. The Waltons’ paid lobbyists want unfettered approval of charters, arguing that the failures will become self-evident and be closed.
There’s a secondary issue on this Board of Education takeover. Some opponents of the legislation suspect that the motivation is also to force Gov. Beebe to pick and choose among the existing membership, two-thirds of them his appointees, when naming three of the nine members.
Is the intent to make him NOT pick Jay Barth, the Hendrix professor, as a continuing member of the board? Barth’s appointment met criticism from conservative Christian (Republican) political activists because he is gay.
I asked Dotson and Hester, also from Bentonville and also a lead sponsor, if Barth’s sexual orientation is any factor in the desire to reshape the board. Dotson says no. He hasn’t responded to my question about whether he had ever talked with the Family Council or anyone else about the sexual orientation of a member of the state Board of Education. I haven’t heard back from Hester.
UPDATE: Dotson says he doesn’t even known any of the current state Board members. His bill, he said, is a “good government bill.” In response to my question, he said:
I did not discuss the bill with Family Council before introducing it, but they seem to be one of the groups who like it. You will have to speak with them directly to see why. I welcome any support for one of my bills I can find, are you suggesting I ask them to come speak for it?
UPDATE II: Hester said he presumed anyone appointed by Gov. Beebe was capable and he was “not aware” of who I might be talking about.
Sexual politics aside, this is a bad idea. It would make, I’m told, Arkansas the only state where membership of an education commission is controlled by the legislative branch. It would put an executive agency under legislative control.
Gubernatorial appointments to this particular board have worked particularly well over the years, from Clinton to Huckabee to Beebe, with many others in between. They’ve been an uncommon list of dedicated, hard-working and unpaid public servants, even those I’ve had occasion to disagree with philosophically (and, yes, I also mean to praise Luke Gordy, now a paid lobbyist for the Walton-financed school movement).
This is a bad idea on the merits; terrible if even a scintilla of homophobia is involved. School administrators and other school people formed a coalition to force a compromise on the Walton charter school regulation bill — moving it to state Education Department employees rather than a legislatively controlled independent commission as originally tried. If they don’t form similar opposition on this bill, they’ll see a change in governance that will do a whole lot more than effectively put in place the legislatively controlled structure they wanted in the first place for charter school approval and review. Legislative meddling in the Education Department will become epidemic.
It’s uncertain when Dotson will try to get the bill approved in committee, but it’s on the Education Committee agenda.