Bond Issues Along Protests on School Takeovers, Privatization, and Charter Expansion

New Orleans  Throughout the country parents, teacher unions, and community groups have been opposing the viral spread of privatization of public school systems and the efforts of charter school operators to expand their footprint in school districts. Perhaps the most controversial maneuvers are the state takeovers of local public school districts by removing duly elected school board members and replacing them with unaccountable managers.

The most famous was certainly the post-Katrina usurpation in New Orleans which has now led to all but four of the more than 100 schools in the district being run by charter operators. School districts have also been taken over in Indianapolis, threatened in Buffalo, in some California districts, and others as well. Despite only a small number of poorly performing schools of the forty-eight in the Little Rock School District, the state of Arkansas asserted control seemingly triggered by outside donors and advocates of charter expansion being opposed by the Superintendent, who was immediately replaced.

These fights have sharp dividing lines, but increasingly the claims of private and charter operators of improved education and test scores has not been proven by the actual results. Advocates of vouchers to accelerate the process of moving students out of public schools have also made progress in more than half of the states in the country and now have a staunch advocate as head of the Department of Education, but recent studies are indicating that students are falling behind in many of these private and parochial facilities. Claims from New Orleans and New York that such programs would decrease racial and ethnic segregation in public school systems are also achieving the opposite outcomes.

In the tug of war over school control, which is often cultural and ideological, the voice of protests have often been simply ignored by state governments and others. Events in the ongoing fight in Little Rock may have found a way to force authorities to hear their opposition using the ballot box to express their anger when presented with a school bond issue. A wide coalition of groups, including Local 100 and Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, opposing the bond issue for new school construction and other programs in the district united under the banner of “Taxation without Representation,” made their protest of the state takeover clear.

Despite a united business community and being outspent by a ratio of ten to one, opponents smashed the bond issue by a margin of almost 2 to 1, 65% to 35%. The district is 70% African-American now and in many African-American precincts the margins against the bond issue ran 90% to 10%. Normally liberal districts in middle-income, hipper Heights area also defeated the bond issue strongly. The turnout was the highest for a bond issue in 17 years. The Governor Asa Hutchinson, whose administration was responsible for the takeover, campaigned for the measure and was embarrassed by the results. The state appointed Superintendent was forced to concede the loss even before balloting ended.

Bond mileage increases on property taxes funding school districts are usually the lifeblood of public schools. Often the district needs the money as much as the taxpayers do in these tough financial times, but even if this is playing with fire, there is no denying the power of the protest when a community unites to oppose privatization, charter expansion, and undemocratic takeovers of local districts. Little Rock protesters and voters may have shown others around the country the path to take to force their voices to be heeded.

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Executions, Drug Companies, and High Drama in Arkansas

Protesters gather outside the state Capitol building on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Little Rock, Ark., to voice their opposition to Arkansas’ seven upcoming executions. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

Little Rock       So, if you ask , what’s happening these days in Arkansas, you think you’re being a wit, because what in the world could be happening in Arkansas, now, really?  These days though there is high drama in Arkansas, none of which is heaping credit on the Wonder State.

For months the state has been getting huge publicity as it prepared to execute eight men over coming weeks before its supply of the drug used for the lethal injection expired.  After no executions in the state for years, this was a hurry up and kill move, rare anywhere in the country.  The first executions were scheduled in days.  Not surprisingly lawyers for the prisoners have predictably gone into court on all manner of grounds, but mainly questioning the drugs on offer.  One execution had been stayed, while others were moving forward.

Then, all heck seems to have broken out, and it came from unexpected directions.

Four pharmaceutical companies challenged the state over their stockpile of various lethal drugs and how the Arkansas Corrections Department had gone about getting its hands on the drugs.  One company, McKesson, the 5th largest company on the Fortune 500 in the US and the country’s largest drug supplier put a sharp point on the whole matter by flatly accusing the State of Arkansas of outright deception in how it had come to have the drugs.  Piecing the story together, Arkansas seemed to have made an order through a state physician on what had seemed to be a routine purchase of potassium chloride.  Two weeks after the sale, the company became suspicious that there was a slight of hand involved and demanded the return of the drug, issued a refund of the purchase amount, and sent a self-addressed shipping seal for return of the drugs.  Arkansas didn’t return them though, which led to McKesson going to court.

Needless to say, this is a unique situation in the history of executions in the USA.  Never before have drug companies tried to step in the way, saying they didn’t want to be party to this kind of thing or have any of their products involved.  In public comments, one company made it abundantly clear.  They saw themselves in the business of life-saving, not life-ending and believed there was reputational damage to any of their products being used in executions.  Given how sensitive corporations are of their images, I have to wonder if this might be a turning point in the long fight to end executions in the this country.  Obviously, the drug companies have decided that they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, and that’s huge.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffin, also host of a popular show on KABF and a member of the radio station’s board, issued a stay of several days based on the drug company’s pleadings.  In late breaking news a federal judge in Little Rock acted to stay all the executions to sort out the issues, likely making the Arkansas government’s plans for a killing spree moot.  Governor Asa Hutchinson and the State Department of Corrections have thus far said nothing on the charges of duplicity in obtaining the drugs.

Never think Arkansas is boring!

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