We need my retired colleague Doug Smith to make short pithy work of a momentous week in city and state politics. I’ll try to hit the high spots, in chronological order.
PRESIDENTIAL VISIT: President Barack Obama, the most reviled politician in Arkansas if polls are any measure, was invited to the state by Sen. Mark Pryor. It was a gutsy move. Pryor’s opponent, extremist Republican Tom Cotton, is running a campaign built solely, after billionaire economic theory, on tying Pryor to Obama. Huge, friendly crowds welcomed Obama to Arkansas. Who wouldn’t want the attention of the most powerful person in the U.S. in a time of need? Republicans even joined in the praise of the president. Tom Cotton sulked in Washington, rudely giving a strange anti-Obama screed before the right-wing Federalist Society while the president was dispensing alms in storm-wrecked Arkansas. What better reminder of Tom Cotton’s repeated votes against disaster assistance for others? It was a home run for Mark Pryor. Obama will remain unpopular in Arkansas, but the moderate middle — on whom this election rests — have good reason to remember he might not be as bad as Odd Tom wants everyone to believe. No wonder polls show Pryor with a lead over Cotton.
EDUCATION: Shocking. The state Board of Education voted overwhelmingly to refuse a request to move the proposed Quest charter middle school to a new location. Only Board member Diane Zook, aunt of Walton-financed charter school lobbyist Gary Newton — who’s led establishment of the school — wanted to approve the move. The denial could make it hard for Quest, to be operated by Texas-based Responsive Education Solutions, to open in the fall.
The school has only itself and lack of honesty to blame. It said an original location out west was vital for parents without a middle school nearby. At that very moment, it was negotiating for a new, cheaper site near existing Little Rock middle schools. It later said it wouldn’t buy the proposed new building until the state and city approved. Two days later, without approval from either, it bought the building. It said it had studied traffic. But no traffic study existed of the key problem, handling 180 students a day off a cul de sac that can only feed 150 to 200 cars an hour through a light from the cul de sac to busy Financial Centre Parkway.
The school’s manager, which operates or has contracts to help manage six other charter schools in Arkansas, damaged its credibility. The state Education Department charter authorizing panel damaged its credibility by ignoring all the problems in the application, not to mention Responsive Ed’s record on educating poor kids and screwy science and history curriculum.
Departing Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell damaged his credibility by trying to kiss off traffic concerns of neighbors to hurry another Walton-financed project to fruition.
If charter schools are about accountability, Responsive Ed and Quest and Gary Newton have earned an F so far, even as they wage a vicious attack aimed at destroying what little good remains in the Little Rock School District. Even staunch charter school supporters on the state board indicated Quest screwed up with the site switcheroo. Time for a kinder and more honest approach.
SLEAZY POLITICS: A shadowy Virginia outfit with a long history of pouring secretly sourced cash into state judicial races to help elect chamber of commerce-approved judges is spending a relative fortune in Arkansas to elect Robin Wynne over Tim Cullen to a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court. The ads follow a past pattern of depicting the unfavored candidate as soft on crime. The core message is that any criminal defense lawyer has no right to run for a judgeship. It’s an un-American reading of the Constitution. Wynne’s failure to repudiate the secret money and the anti-American message of the ads from which he benefits raises fair questions about his fitness to serve.
PEOPLE GOT TO BE FREE: Judge Chris Piazza did honor to the U.S. Constitution, the Arkansas Constitution, himself and equality by striking down Arkansas bans on same-sex marriage. The Arkansas Supreme Court, acutely political and with some key changes in membership since its landmark decision striking down constitutional discrimination against gay parenting, may be the first court to resist the rising tide of popular and legal support for marriage equality. It might properly decide to stay Piazza’s order until an appeal is completed. But it’s too late to prevent the world from seeing image after image of devoted and happy families, drinking at long last from the cup of freedom. Our founding fathers specifically provided checks to curb tyrant religious majorities anxious to impose their personal views in law. In Arkansas, for a few days at least, the arc of history bent toward justice.