Sunday, 28 August 2016 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

How the Billionaire Kingpins of School Privatization Got Stopped in Their Own Backyard

Tuesday, 08 September 2015 00:00 By Kali Holloway, AlterNet | News Analysis
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Walmart's owners, the Walton family, experienced in set back in their push for school privatization with the defeat of House Bill 1733 in Arkansas.The Walton family, Walmart's owners, experienced a setback in their push for school privatization with the defeat of House Bill 1733 in Arkansas. (Photo: Lone Primate / Flickr)

The debate over public schools in Arkansas has been, for decades, ongoing and often fraught. In 1957, the Arkansas school year began with white mobs viciously attacking nine black teenagers as they attempted to desegregate Little Rock's Central High following Brown vs. Board of Education, shining a national spotlight on the state and forcing President Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne Division. This past January, nearly 60 years after Arkansas' first desegregation efforts, the state board of education dissolved Little Rock's democratically elected local school board, the most racially inclusive and representative of its majority-black constituency in nearly a decade. In making the decision, the state overruled widespread public outcry to take control of the largest school district in the state. Two months later, Walton Family Foundation-backed lobbyists launched a brazen legislative push to allow for broader privatization - or put bluntly, "charterization" - of schools across Arkansas. It was a move many believed revealed a carefully orchestrated effort, begun months prior, to undermine the state's public school system, destroy its teachers unions and turn public funds into private profits. 

Anyone with even a passing interest in public education knows how this story normally ends; one need only look to places like Philadelphia, where Walton dollars have helped launch an explosion of charters, or New Orleans and Detroit, where Walton funds have contributed to a system in which a majority of K-12 students now attend charter schools. Though it is not the only big-money contributor to the education reform movement (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a key player, as are countless millionaire hedge funders, investment bankers and other titans of finance), no single entity has poured more money into the push for "school choice" than the Walton Family Foundation. As a recent report from In the Public Interest and the American Federation of Teachers notes, "the foundation has kick-started more than 1,500 schools, approximately one out of four charters in the country. Over the last five years [WFF] has spent between $63 million and $73 million annually to fuel new charter openings."

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But this March, Arkansas proved the exception to the ubiquity of Walton rule. Following the introduction of House Bill 1733, which would have vastly expanded the potential for privatization of Arkansas' public school districts, a collection of grassroots groups, urban and rural school advocates, educators, parents, and other passionate individuals committed to public education mobilized. Recognizing they were out-spent, the collective out-organized the Walton lobby, killing the bill before it even passed out of committee. The bill's defeat was made all the more significant by the fact that it occurred in the Waltons' own backyard. Like the family business, Walmart, the Walton dynasty's philanthropic arm is headquartered in Arkansas. The Waltons loom so large in the state, in politics, banking, education, and of course, big-box retailing, one former Arkansas educator and public school parent told me that when HB1733 appeared, she imagined every public interaction would soon involve a Walton-backed entity. "Before long, you'll be able to drop your kids off at a Walton charter school and then get your groceries at one of those Walmart Neighborhood Markets."

In an era in which Walton money is, state by state and district by district, changing one of our most vital public institutions into a guaranteed investment scheme for the rich and powerful and popularizing the neoliberal notion that our schools are so irreparably broken they can only be saved by a new competition-based, market-driven education system, the defeat of HB1733 deserves an up-close look. It's the rare story of a win that, for reasons both practical and symbolic, should get the attention of everyone who values the institution of public education.

Let's Talk About Charters

Charter schools - once hailed as a panacea for every ill plaguing our overburdened, underfunded public school system - have proliferated throughout the United States over the last 20 years, thanks to promises of an epic education system turnaround. There are now more than 6,400 public charter schools in 43 states, funded by taxpayers, with 2.5 million students. The problems associated with many of these institutions is well-documented.

A 2014 Integrity in Education report titled "Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud and Abuse," found "fraudulent charter operators in 15 states are responsible for losing, misusing or wasting over $100 million in taxpayer money." The previously referenced In the Public Interest study highlights what can only be described as scores of examples of gross mismanagement, fraud, embezzlement and profiteering at Walton-backed charters all around the country. Citing a 2009 study from Stanford University, the New York Times writes that "only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education." A subsequent 2013 report from the university found – to again quote the Times – "the standards used by the charter authorizers to judge school performance are terribly weak." Numerous other studies come to the same conclusion: that charters have not only failed to solve America's "education problem," but in many cases, have exacerbated education issues for this country's most vulnerable students.

Among the most glaring issues with charter schools is their erasure of community voices - those who best know the needs of both their local public schools and the students they serve - in shaping their own public school systems. Democratically elected community school boards have historically been the foundation of America's public school system. But charters transfer oversight powers from local boards to state-run panels, which are often referred to as Achievement School Districts, much like the one proposed under HB1733. ASDs close public schools, fire teachers and - though identified as nonprofit entities - often contract with for-profit corporations which assume nearly every aspect of running school operations. This privatizing of public schools means charter management policies are not required to be disclosed, debated, involve unions or report to education regulators. What's more, though charters rely on public funds, they are exempted from a long list of state regulations, and often waive policies that dictate teacher certification requirements, curriculum standards, student safety issues, and accountability mandates. In short, the charter explosion has created a parallel education system under the guise of helping students but disregarding possible corruption, which recent reports suggest is rampant.

Issues of race, class and inequality of access are also of critical importance in examining the impact of charter schools on public education around the country. As Paul L. Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, recently wrote in a piece for AlterNet, charter schools, which overwhelmingly serve African-American and Latino students "are significantly segregated - and charter schools also cause serious concern about selectivity, pushing out and under-serving marginalized student populations (highest-poverty, English language learners, special needs students)" - students traditional public schools are required to serve. The ability to cherry-pick students, eliminating those with special or nontraditional needs, calls into question the validity of charter school performance assessments. The "minority and high-poverty students" who make up the bulk of charter students are, as Thomas notes, often "subjected to reduced curricula, extensive test-prep and harsh 'no excuses' discipline policies. And when a high-profile media examination of 'no excuses' exposes horrors like students wetting their pants during testing, charter advocates remain committed to their standard (though misleading) 'miracle' playbook, suggesting that the ends justify the means."

Equally controversial is the issue of profiteering off charter schools. As Bill Moyers points out in a recent report, "[p]ublic education is becoming big business as bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity investors are entering what they consider to be an 'emerging market.'" (The report notes that billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who in 2011 spent more than three hundred million dollars purchasing an education technology company, stated, "When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone.")

Education historian and vocal charter school opponent Diane Ravitch, interviewed in the same Moyers report, summed up the situation thusly:

"[E]ntrepreneurs...see [education reform] as [a] huge opportunity to make money. There are now frequently conferences, at least annually...on how to profit from the public education industry. Now, I never thought of public education as an industry. But the entrepreneurs do see it as an industry. They see it as a national marketplace for hardware, for software, for textbook publishing, for selling whatever it is they're selling, and for actually taking over all of the roles of running a school. This is what the charter movement is. It's an effort to privatize public education, because there's so much money there that enough of it can be extracted to pay off the investors. But I think what's at stake is the future of American public education."

Understanding Arkansas

Barclay Key is a professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the parent of two school-age children enrolled in Little Rock public schools and an outspoken critic of the recent Little Rock School District takeover by the state. Earlier this month, he wrote a piece, "Our Public Education Crisis: A White Parent's Perspective," which offered a detailed timeline of the LRSD takeover. (Key's article gained a national audience when Ravitch posted it on her popular blog.) Key had been actively engaged with the LRSD board until its dismantling, including managing the successful 2014 election of member Jim Ross. In his piece, Key notes that in the 13 months preceding the takeover, four new members -including Ross - were voted into LRSD school board seats. "The seven-member board now had four black representatives and a strong white ally in Jim [Ross]," Key wrote, pointing out that this was the first time since 2006 that LRSD - which has been majority-black for some 40 years and is now roughly 70 percent African American - would have a black majority. "Democracy was working for people who were committed to improving our schools."

In October 2014, as the new LRSD members were taking their seats, the Arkansas Department of Education announced it was designating six of Little Rock's 48 public schools as "academically distressed," meaning less than 49.5 percent of their students tested proficient in math and literature on standardized tests. The law governing when the state may take over a school district is amorphous, and according to Key and others I spoke to, arbitrarily applied; there is no formal number, or proportion of schools that must be labeled in "distress" for a takeover to be imminent.

"If your standard is that there are six schools out of 48 that are in distress, therefore we're going to take over, and you try to apply that statewide, that won't work," Key told me. "[The rules state] specifically that a district has to be in distress before an entire district can be taken over. Our district was not in distress. We had six schools that they labeled as distressed. The way the law is written, they could have taken those six schools over and done whatever they wanted with those six schools. That's obviously not what happened."

According to Key, the majority-new LRSD school board immediately got wind of the fact that a state takeover was looming, and began working diligently with administrators across the district to "prioritize work with [those six] schools" and get them up to snuff. He says LRSD board members were in constant contact with the state board and then-LRSD superintendent Dexter Suggs, developing actions that adhered to suggestions and recommendations from both parties. "At every step in this process the state approved of the LRSD's plans," Key wrote. But those efforts would ultimately prove fruitless.

Despite a rally that USA Today reports included "hours of testimony, much of it emotional, from students, teachers and community members opposed to the takeover," and hundreds of emails sent to state education board members in defense of the LRSD board, on January 28, the state voted 5-4 to dismantle the LRSD school board and seize oversight of the district. "Several state board members agreed...that the LRSD board was dysfunctional and had been for a long time, ignoring the fact that a majority of the board had recently been elected. The state board, the people charged with oversight of our public schools, perpetuated the 'awfulizing narrative,' a phrase used elsewhere to explain how public schools are summarily criticized without nuance or specificity."

Key suggests that most of the state education board members who voted for the takeover - all Democratic nominees of the outgoing Democratic governor - were motivated less by concern for failing schools and more by ideological opposition to the institution of public education. Neil Sealy, of Arkansas Community Organizations, a progressive grassroots group that was part of the pushback to HB1733, echoed this sentiment when he spoke to me, saying, "They had a State Board of Ed that was highly influenced by Walton money and the Chamber of Commerce." In his piece, Key is more specific in identifying the ties he believes bind some state board members to the Walton mission of privatization:

Diane Zook voted for the takeover. Her nephew (Gary Newton, head of the Walton-backed lobbyist group Arkansas Learns) is a leading proponent of charter schools for the Walton Family Foundation in Arkansas, and her husband is the president of the state Chamber of Commerce. Vicki Saviers voted for the takeover. She helped start a local charter school and served on the board of Arkansans for Education Reform, both ventures backed by money from the Walton Family Foundation. Kim Davis voted for the takeover. He accepted a job with the Walton Family Foundation five months after the takeover. Toyce Newton voted for the takeover. She is the president and CEO of a nonprofit community development organization that receives financial support from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. These four members have direct ties to foundations that are purposefully undermining our public schools.

Key, like many others I spoke to, says while some LRSD schools were indeed in real academic trouble and could accurately be described as failing their students, those schools were not representative of the entire district. What's more, wholesale takeover of the LRSD and dismissal of the local board offers few reparative options. "There's a list of maybe 15 or so solutions that, if there is a school or district in academic distress, these are the things that the state can do. Of course, their gradations of possibilities were the most intrusive, being the takeover. They immediately chose the one that was most disruptive to local governments and most disruptive to the school system."

Key also sees the dismantling of the LRSD school board, and the shift of political agency away from locally elected figures to the state, as having clear racial undertones. He writes, "[A] majority black school board in a majority black school district was displaced by whites who accept the status quo about the education of many of our children."

Benji Hardy, an education writer for the Arkansas Times, even while calling Barclay Key's piece a "polemic," wrote it was "right to emphasize that the state takeover involved the transfer of political authority from a majority-black policymaking body to state leaders who are mostly white. In a district and a city so prominently defined by race - not just in 1957, but in all the intervening decades as well - that fact simply cannot be glossed over as merely happenstance, as just an unfortunate aside. I think it's fair to say that most of the African American community in Little Rock doesn't see it as an aside."

Insult to Injury

The takeover of Little Rock - specifically through the district-wide designation of "academic distress" - grabbed the attention of public school education advocates from around the state. It signified, for many, a bold willingness, perhaps even an eagerness, for the state to intervene beyond the boundaries of what many had previously considered thinkable. Certainly, the state education board had taken over districts before. But if Little Rock - the state capital and its most populous school district, with almost 25,000 students - was fair game with just six academically distressed schools out of nearly 50, then surely any other district could, in whole or in part, potentially be taken over by the state. 

Lavina Grandon, president of the board of Rural Community Alliance, voiced this idea when I spoke with her. "In rural Arkansas, we've said, 'They won't ever take over Little Rock, and so as long as they're not taking over Little Rock, they can't take over us either.'" The state's choice to send LRSD into receivership, she said, had served as a "wakeup call."

Also a wakeup call, for many others I spoke to, was newly elected Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson's installation of former Arkansas state senator Johnny Key (no relation to Barclay Key) as the state's Education Commissioner. Key's appointment this March demanded a change to Arkansas law, since he lacked the legally mandated "teacher certificate, master's degree and 10 years education experience" previously required. Seen as a Walton ally and supporter of school privatization (as a senator in 2013, he was pivotal in increasing sixfold the enrollment limits of the Arkansas Virtual Charter School), Johnny Key instantly became the de facto head of Little Rock schools.

Commissioner Key then appointed attorney Baker Kurrus as superintendent of LRSD. (His predecessor, Dexter Suggs, was forced to step down following accusations he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation.) Kurrus had sent his children to public schools in Little Rock and served on the LRSD school board for 12 years. Though the local teachers' union, the Little Rock Education Association, voiced support for the appointment, the swiftness of his hiring, on the heels of Johnny Key's seemingly rushed placement, left more than a few concerned. Hardy noted that Kurrus "has no professional background in education, which meant the hiring required a waiver of rule and statute from the State Board of Education. This was accomplished at a special meeting of the state board that was announced barely 24 hours in advance, and with no evident solicitation of input from anyone in the community." Still others questioned the state's seemingly circular logic in dissolving the "dysfunctional" LRSD school board, only to then appoint a former member "who served during some of the board's most tumultuous - some might say dysfunctional - years" as superintendent.

Education advocates told me they were perhaps most disturbed by the fact that seven months after the takeover, the state still hadn't offered a game plan for how it would repair Little Rock's "academically distressed" schools. If the state had no clear strategy for fixing those schools, why had it bothered to take them over in the first place?

"What's the plan to make these schools better?" Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, asked when I spoke to her. "Literally, there's really not a plan, there's never been a plan. Right now, you're still hearing community members out there saying, how are you going to get those six schools out of academic distress and keep the rest out? How are we going to do that? There's not a definite...roadmap to say how we do this."

Neil Sealy, of Arkansas Community Organizations, expressed the same sentiment. "This new superintendent, instead of talking about improving achievement here in those six distressed schools, or overall - because we know there's still an achievement gap [between black and white students] - instead of addressing those issues, he's been talking about building new buildings, closing outmoded schools, and that's been the mantra. Why are we not focusing on the kids instead of the buildings?"

"Baker Kurrus is getting all these credits," State Representative John Walker, who argued a desegregation case in Arkansas courts for nearly three decades (NPR dubbed the recently settled suit "one of the longest running" cases in the country) told me. Walker was likely referring to recent statements by Johnny Key suggesting Kurrus was achieving daily successes in Little Rock's schools. "So I sent an email asking him to tell me what evidence there is that anything he says is even in place or is working or will work. 'Can I see all your writings or any of your writings?' And he says, 'I have no writings.' He has no writings. I've asked Commissioner Key if he has anything that will show that any of these things are working or will work. And he has [none]. But nonetheless he has announced that Baker's doing all these wonderful things. And when I ask him to explain what the things are, he can't do it."

In an email exchange with Baker Kurrus, I asked what vision the state board has for the LRSD in the immediate future. He responded:

"I couldn't answer for the state, but I do know that Arkansas Department of Education has written in its reports that it was concerned about the lack of consistent management, poor lines of authority, poor communication, poor implementation of instructional interventions, and other related operational details. During my tenure the ADE has been very supportive of LRSD's efforts with respect to governance, organizational structure, consistent instructional and testing strategies, staffing, and a number of other related operational changes that were needed."

He added, "I am very focused on serving the educational needs of our district through our system of LRSD schools. Competition exists, and has existed, for a number of years. I want LRSD to be the district of choice for all of our patrons and their students."

The Rise and Fall of HB1733

The sense of outrage over state overreach and Walton encroachment that followed the Little Rock takeover likely helped fuel the backlash against HB1733.

Reportedly written by Scott Smith, head of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a nonprofit that receives $3 million in grants annually from the Walton Family Foundation, the bill would have granted the state power to take over any district deemed in academic distress in favor of an "Achievement School District." As Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times wrote, the law would "make all school teachers and administrators fire-at-will employees without due process rights. It would destroy one of the two last remaining teacher union contracts in Arkansas. It allows for the permanent end of democratic control of a school district or those portions of it privatized. It would capture property tax millage voted by taxpayers for specific purposes, including buildings, and give them to private operators. It would allow seizure of buildings for private operators at no cost."

In short, it looked an awful lot like charter legislation currently being passed around the country, often with the backing of Walton Family Foundation dollars. And that set off alarm bells for those on the side of Arkansas' public education system.

"I think that a big part of [the pushback to] HB1733 is that Arkansas educators were very familiar with the Recovery School District in Louisiana [and] the Achievement School District in Tennessee," Tony Prothro, assistant executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, told me. "We had seen those bills and those types of legislation passed in those states. There was basically no communication, no groundwork, nothing within the communities, within the education realm. All of a sudden we have a bill that, to a large degree, mirrors the same type of legislation that had passed in these other states. The author of the bill, I truly believe, was trying to solve an issue: chronically failing schools. But the solution in HB1733 was not one that we could support."

Shortly before the bill's appearance, the State Board of Education released a list of 22 schools that were "academically distressed." Six of those schools, as previously mentioned, were in Little Rock; the rest were in districts throughout the state. While many were located in urban areas, rural schools were represented on the list as well. Lavina Grandon, of Rural Community Alliance, has been fighting rural school district consolidation around Arkansas for more than three decades. Wary of the implications for the schools she works with - Arkansas is overwhelmingly rural - she knew RCA needed to be on the frontlines of the battle against the bill.

"Most of [the schools on the list] weren't rural...but some of them were, and all you have to do is manipulate that definition of an academically distressed school a little bit, and you can add a whole bunch more to that list," she told me. "We have enough accountability laws in Arkansas that any school district can be targeted for takeover or elimination through those laws. We knew that they were just starting with academic distress, that it was not going to end up there....The fact is that a slight manipulation of the data could throw a lot more schools into academic distress, very slight. Then there would be lots of rural schools caught in it. There are some [on the list] already, and they are most vulnerable."

Perhaps equally important in sparking an immediate negative response to the bill among Arkansas public education watchers was its familiarity. During the 2013 legislative session, Walton-backed forces had attempted to pass HB1040, a bill that sought to create a special, autonomous panel to handle all charter-related issues, thereby circumnavigating the state board of education. Though that legislation was defeated, it appeared to Grandon and others to be just the latest in an ongoing series of public school privatization attempts.

"This wasn't our first dance," Grandon said of HB1733 when we talked. "We've recognized the threat from privatization forces for years. In Arkansas, you can go all the way back to the late '90s, when there was the Murphy Commission, then the Blue Ribbon Commission. All of those were financed and instigated by the same people who were pushing HB1733, and the purpose was to define public schools as failing and needing not just drastic improvement, but even a whole, 'Let's tear them down and rebuild them into something else, because there is no way to fix this monster.'"

Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel/Citizens First Congress, told me the bill had been "silly," but deeply revealing. "Their reason for filing the bill is they said that the state rejected too many charter school applicants, and in reality they had only rejected [maybe] two or three proposals, and they were grossly inadequate. It really kind of exposed to me the extremism of their view - that they really don't want any accountability or transparency."

If experience decoding privatization attempts helped public school advocates recognize the numerous problematic aspects of HB1733, experience in coalition-building turned out to be equally important in organizing for its defeat. As more than one Arkansan pointed out to me, the state has a long legacy of progressive action despite being in the deep South, largely rural and intensely red. Yes, there's the whole Clinton association. But more substantively, progressive groups in the state often work in collaboration on campaigns that fall within their places of overlap. (It's why, for example, Arkansas is the only southern state to approve the Medicaid expansion - though its future under Republican governor Hutchinson remains to be seen.)

It should also be noted that there's frequent collaboration between nonpartisan groups that share the same end goals; say, ensuring that public schools not only remain viable, but that they do their very best to serve all of Arkansas' children. Arkansas teachers union, superintendents group and the school board coalition all enlisted in the fight, not based on partisan leanings but because the issue of protecting public schools sits at the heart of their collective mission. That spirit of collaboration gave opposition groups a head start in challenging the bill.

"We don't all agree on everything, unfortunately," Bill Kopsky told me. "But we focus on trying to make progress so we [can] play defense on the things that we do agree on. We were able to pretty instantaneously come together on the bill when it was filed because we had already laid the groundwork, had the relationships with each other and had good working relationships."

Arkansas Education Association President Brenda Robinson shared a similar sentiment. "That was the beauty with all of this. We'd already met with the stakeholders. We already had a good relationship. We've been meeting for years and years. We've had to work on building that collaboration. And because that was already strong, we were able to move forward and work quickly getting the word out and messaging. We were able to do that really efficiently because we already had a good coalition built prior to [HB1733] happening. I think in all of our meetings, we've just always talked about what's best for public schools."

What followed was round-the-clock organizing on every possible front. Each group rallied its membership base, creating a groundswell of opposition from across the state that was impossible for House Education Committee Chair Bruce Cozart to ignore. "What you basically had was a collaboration, a combined effort from, you might say, all of the education groups in Arkansas," Boyce Watkins, advocacy director for Arkansas School Boards Association told me. "And not just them, but the people they touch, which is a significant number of people. Now whenever you have that broad of a base contacting legislators and telling them, we don't want this, then legislators are put in a position where they listen to that. They're elected officials."

Neil Sealy of Arkansas Community Organizations describes being surprised by the wide-open destructive potential of the bill, and offered details about the on-the-ground efforts it inspired among his group's members. "When 1733 came down, it looked like, wow, this is the game plan, right? We did a lot of phone calls, got our members calling the committee and...targeted the 10 Democrats. I'm not sure how it happened that there were 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans [on the House Education Committee]. But whoever did that was very smart. We also did a lot of radio. We have a couple of talk shows. We did a big show about the bill and the phone rang off the hook."

"Our members were already mobilized in a sense, because we had a few bills we were trying to get passed we needed their support on," Candace Williams, executive director of the RCA, told me. "We tell them to call legislators, tweet them, Facebook them, email them. Whatever we needed them to do, they were there. When this issue came up it was red-flagged, so we already had them in motion. We presented them with this and told them, 'Hey, call your legislator and tell them that this is something you don't want. This is what can happen to your school district, potentially.'"

Tony Prothro of ASBA (the state school boards association) also sat down face-to-face with a key lawmaker in a meeting that likely moved the needle, though it wouldn't be obvious until later. "We met with the chief legislator of the bill, along with several other groups - the administrator's association, the teacher's association, a parent group advocate was there," he told me. "At that point it did not look like the bill was going to be withdrawn or greatly modified, so we made the call out to our membership....It was a huge outcry from, I think, all entities to show that Arkansas does not want to go down this path at this time."

"So, then it becomes a math problem," Kopsky told me, reflecting on how the coalition continued to bear down on those who might be swayed. "You just start counting votes on the committee and who's strongly supportive of it and who's strongly opposed to it and who's in between. And there's always somebody in between."

In the end, the strategy worked, bringing an abrupt halt to HB1733's progress toward the House floor. Cozart pulled the bill on March 17, just 11 days after it was submitted. Max Brantley, of the Arkansas Times, spoke to the legislator shortly after the call was made, and quotes him as saying "the governor wanted [a bill] like this" while also stating it hadn't been Hutchinson's bill. Brantley also spoke with former LRSD board member Jim Ross, who told him bill opponents had heard "there was pressure [to pull the bill] from the Walton family, who are tired of the bad press."

The defeat of HB1733 was surely the result of multiple actions and groups working together (Brantley says Cozart suggested "the input of school boards and administrators around the state made a big difference"), but the sheer diversity of those involved likely tipped the scales.

"[O]nce you allow the takeover of these poor black districts it's just a matter of time before the poor white districts are taken over. And then the other districts are taken over at whim depending on what the politics of the situation are at a given time. And I think they could see that," Rep. Walker told me.

Hardy, the Arkansas Times education blogger, offered this perspective: "It's tempting to see what happened with HB1733 as people speaking truth to power and putting the brakes on this big, bad thing. And I think to some extent, that's what happened. But what may have killed the bill more than anything is an alliance between traditional education groups that are both well-organized and represent fairly powerful parochial interests, not necessarily progressive ones. Superintendents, school boards, teachers in a largely rural and very conservative state. They saw what that bill was trying to do as a threat to their survival. And rightfully so."

The Future of Arkansas

However compelling the story of HB1733 is, as a standalone story or a signifier of a turn in public opinion around charter schools, it raises the question of what the future holds for Arkansas public schools. Within days of its defeat, the House Education Committee was debating another bill that would have allowed charters to take over "underutilized" school facilities. More recently, LRSD teachers learned that there will likely be significant changes to their union's longstanding contract. While the aforementioned legislation fell flat, and the contract negotiations are still underway, it's hard not to imagine these issues as indicative of the direction public education in Arkansas might take. 

Perhaps the lesson imparted to Arkansas' "school choice" advocates isn't that most of the state's citizens reject public school privatization; it's that they won't accept it when it's presented so nakedly. If Walton-backed education reformers have gone back to the drawing board - and there is plenty of reason to suspect they have - it is likely to create a more convincing way to present their agenda for public approval.

"Maybe it surprised the people at the Walton Foundation that they got such pushback from other groups," Benji Hardy told me. "I think there's a growing recognition that the changes being pushed by really gung-ho charter advocates are a threat to the whole system....I wouldn't be surprised if some of that momentum they've had in places like New Orleans and other cities will slow down somewhat, because I think that people are kind of wise to the threat that it poses to the traditional education world.

"But I also wouldn't be surprised if that bill comes back written in such a way that it is very limited only to Little Rock, and therefore is more palatable to others within the state that may see Little Rock as a problem needing to be fixed....From my perspective, a lot of that comes from race and class and prejudices that people have that allow them to think about places like New Orleans or inner-city Memphis or Philadelphia or Little Rock as being different. That those are places with pathological problems."

Neil Sealy said very nearly the same thing when I asked him about looking forward. "I don't see a New Orleans scenario....But I do see a significant increase in charters. And a busting of the teachers union, a downgrade in certification for teaching, and continued [racial] segregation of the schools to parallel the segregation of the neighborhoods. And my fear is that, we got people to rise up this last session from all over the state, but is that going to happen this time around? I think HB1733 was an extreme bill. And my bet is it's going to be not as extreme next time. And it could just target Little Rock."

Rep. Walker, who has been highly vocal and visible in his opposition to the Walton agenda, worries that his retirement - he's 77- might leave public schools without a strong advocate among Arkansas state lawmakers. "I don't want to be vain, but I think that there won't be very much leadership to hold it off when I'm out of the legislature," he told me. "The Democratic Party seems to have been beaten down and they want to be able to get small victories. Which the other side will give, but they're not meaningful to the cause of equity or equality. And they are certainly not racially inclusive kinds of considerations that they will be able to get. The cause of black children will suffer."

In the meantime, public school advocates are doing what they can to stave off privatizing forces and continuing to communicate with allies to maintain ties for the next potential go-round.

Barclay Key, Jim Ross and three other co-plaintiffs, two of them members of the dissolved LRSD school board, have filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Education contesting its takeover of the Little Rock school district. The department has, in turn, appealed the case, sending it to the Arkansas Supreme Court - currently in recess - which has granted an emergency stay. It will likely be months before a decision is rendered and, in the best-case scenario, the suit can proceed.

"We know it's coming back," AEA president Robinson told me. "It was a win now, but we know that we have to keep educating the community. We have to keep educating our parents about our win that they're going to come back...We have to be even stronger and get our message out there to our parents and community about [how] takeovers aren't good. I think we have to change our narrative. We have to tell our stories. We have to talk about what's good in these schools. Until we start telling that narrative, everyone else is telling our story. Which is incorrect, because good things are coming out of public schools."

"I've got some friends and professional colleagues that run some charter schools and they are doing a phenomenal job," ASBA's Tony Prothro told me. "It's not that we're anti-charter, we just need to make sure that the accountability is there, that the need is there, and that they're serving all kids. For instance...if a school is going to come and exist, whether it's a public school, private school, charter schools, whatever, and you do not have transportation for those children to that school, and if you do not provide free and reduced lunches within your school, then you are excluding the kids in the greatest need. If you have a bill that's there that excludes those children from participating, you're segregating. You're going to be segregating based on poverty, which a lot of times goes hand-in-hand with race, and so many other indicators that are there...Serving all kids, I think, is key. And not destroying the public education system."

Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, agrees that continuing community engagement is critical. But the big-picture problem, she suggested, is the very notion of competition-driven education; of commodifying schools, students and communities.

"It's just fundamentally wrong, marketplace-driven public education," she told me. "That's not the foundation or belief system on which public education was founded. If we're moving in that direction, then let's have that conversation and not this fake, 'Let me cut the legs from the entire structure and claim it's [the] market.' No, it's not, because I think if you really had the market conversation, parents would not want that. That's not what public education is there to do. It's actually there to ensure that every child gets a quality education no matter their social or economic disposition."

"Once they're done with their education, then we can talk about the market crap."

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.


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How the Billionaire Kingpins of School Privatization Got Stopped in Their Own Backyard

Tuesday, 08 September 2015 00:00 By Kali Holloway, AlterNet | News Analysis
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Walmart's owners, the Walton family, experienced in set back in their push for school privatization with the defeat of House Bill 1733 in Arkansas.The Walton family, Walmart's owners, experienced a setback in their push for school privatization with the defeat of House Bill 1733 in Arkansas. (Photo: Lone Primate / Flickr)

The debate over public schools in Arkansas has been, for decades, ongoing and often fraught. In 1957, the Arkansas school year began with white mobs viciously attacking nine black teenagers as they attempted to desegregate Little Rock's Central High following Brown vs. Board of Education, shining a national spotlight on the state and forcing President Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne Division. This past January, nearly 60 years after Arkansas' first desegregation efforts, the state board of education dissolved Little Rock's democratically elected local school board, the most racially inclusive and representative of its majority-black constituency in nearly a decade. In making the decision, the state overruled widespread public outcry to take control of the largest school district in the state. Two months later, Walton Family Foundation-backed lobbyists launched a brazen legislative push to allow for broader privatization - or put bluntly, "charterization" - of schools across Arkansas. It was a move many believed revealed a carefully orchestrated effort, begun months prior, to undermine the state's public school system, destroy its teachers unions and turn public funds into private profits. 

Anyone with even a passing interest in public education knows how this story normally ends; one need only look to places like Philadelphia, where Walton dollars have helped launch an explosion of charters, or New Orleans and Detroit, where Walton funds have contributed to a system in which a majority of K-12 students now attend charter schools. Though it is not the only big-money contributor to the education reform movement (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a key player, as are countless millionaire hedge funders, investment bankers and other titans of finance), no single entity has poured more money into the push for "school choice" than the Walton Family Foundation. As a recent report from In the Public Interest and the American Federation of Teachers notes, "the foundation has kick-started more than 1,500 schools, approximately one out of four charters in the country. Over the last five years [WFF] has spent between $63 million and $73 million annually to fuel new charter openings."

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But this March, Arkansas proved the exception to the ubiquity of Walton rule. Following the introduction of House Bill 1733, which would have vastly expanded the potential for privatization of Arkansas' public school districts, a collection of grassroots groups, urban and rural school advocates, educators, parents, and other passionate individuals committed to public education mobilized. Recognizing they were out-spent, the collective out-organized the Walton lobby, killing the bill before it even passed out of committee. The bill's defeat was made all the more significant by the fact that it occurred in the Waltons' own backyard. Like the family business, Walmart, the Walton dynasty's philanthropic arm is headquartered in Arkansas. The Waltons loom so large in the state, in politics, banking, education, and of course, big-box retailing, one former Arkansas educator and public school parent told me that when HB1733 appeared, she imagined every public interaction would soon involve a Walton-backed entity. "Before long, you'll be able to drop your kids off at a Walton charter school and then get your groceries at one of those Walmart Neighborhood Markets."

In an era in which Walton money is, state by state and district by district, changing one of our most vital public institutions into a guaranteed investment scheme for the rich and powerful and popularizing the neoliberal notion that our schools are so irreparably broken they can only be saved by a new competition-based, market-driven education system, the defeat of HB1733 deserves an up-close look. It's the rare story of a win that, for reasons both practical and symbolic, should get the attention of everyone who values the institution of public education.

Let's Talk About Charters

Charter schools - once hailed as a panacea for every ill plaguing our overburdened, underfunded public school system - have proliferated throughout the United States over the last 20 years, thanks to promises of an epic education system turnaround. There are now more than 6,400 public charter schools in 43 states, funded by taxpayers, with 2.5 million students. The problems associated with many of these institutions is well-documented.

A 2014 Integrity in Education report titled "Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud and Abuse," found "fraudulent charter operators in 15 states are responsible for losing, misusing or wasting over $100 million in taxpayer money." The previously referenced In the Public Interest study highlights what can only be described as scores of examples of gross mismanagement, fraud, embezzlement and profiteering at Walton-backed charters all around the country. Citing a 2009 study from Stanford University, the New York Times writes that "only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education." A subsequent 2013 report from the university found – to again quote the Times – "the standards used by the charter authorizers to judge school performance are terribly weak." Numerous other studies come to the same conclusion: that charters have not only failed to solve America's "education problem," but in many cases, have exacerbated education issues for this country's most vulnerable students.

Among the most glaring issues with charter schools is their erasure of community voices - those who best know the needs of both their local public schools and the students they serve - in shaping their own public school systems. Democratically elected community school boards have historically been the foundation of America's public school system. But charters transfer oversight powers from local boards to state-run panels, which are often referred to as Achievement School Districts, much like the one proposed under HB1733. ASDs close public schools, fire teachers and - though identified as nonprofit entities - often contract with for-profit corporations which assume nearly every aspect of running school operations. This privatizing of public schools means charter management policies are not required to be disclosed, debated, involve unions or report to education regulators. What's more, though charters rely on public funds, they are exempted from a long list of state regulations, and often waive policies that dictate teacher certification requirements, curriculum standards, student safety issues, and accountability mandates. In short, the charter explosion has created a parallel education system under the guise of helping students but disregarding possible corruption, which recent reports suggest is rampant.

Issues of race, class and inequality of access are also of critical importance in examining the impact of charter schools on public education around the country. As Paul L. Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, recently wrote in a piece for AlterNet, charter schools, which overwhelmingly serve African-American and Latino students "are significantly segregated - and charter schools also cause serious concern about selectivity, pushing out and under-serving marginalized student populations (highest-poverty, English language learners, special needs students)" - students traditional public schools are required to serve. The ability to cherry-pick students, eliminating those with special or nontraditional needs, calls into question the validity of charter school performance assessments. The "minority and high-poverty students" who make up the bulk of charter students are, as Thomas notes, often "subjected to reduced curricula, extensive test-prep and harsh 'no excuses' discipline policies. And when a high-profile media examination of 'no excuses' exposes horrors like students wetting their pants during testing, charter advocates remain committed to their standard (though misleading) 'miracle' playbook, suggesting that the ends justify the means."

Equally controversial is the issue of profiteering off charter schools. As Bill Moyers points out in a recent report, "[p]ublic education is becoming big business as bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity investors are entering what they consider to be an 'emerging market.'" (The report notes that billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who in 2011 spent more than three hundred million dollars purchasing an education technology company, stated, "When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone.")

Education historian and vocal charter school opponent Diane Ravitch, interviewed in the same Moyers report, summed up the situation thusly:

"[E]ntrepreneurs...see [education reform] as [a] huge opportunity to make money. There are now frequently conferences, at least annually...on how to profit from the public education industry. Now, I never thought of public education as an industry. But the entrepreneurs do see it as an industry. They see it as a national marketplace for hardware, for software, for textbook publishing, for selling whatever it is they're selling, and for actually taking over all of the roles of running a school. This is what the charter movement is. It's an effort to privatize public education, because there's so much money there that enough of it can be extracted to pay off the investors. But I think what's at stake is the future of American public education."

Understanding Arkansas

Barclay Key is a professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the parent of two school-age children enrolled in Little Rock public schools and an outspoken critic of the recent Little Rock School District takeover by the state. Earlier this month, he wrote a piece, "Our Public Education Crisis: A White Parent's Perspective," which offered a detailed timeline of the LRSD takeover. (Key's article gained a national audience when Ravitch posted it on her popular blog.) Key had been actively engaged with the LRSD board until its dismantling, including managing the successful 2014 election of member Jim Ross. In his piece, Key notes that in the 13 months preceding the takeover, four new members -including Ross - were voted into LRSD school board seats. "The seven-member board now had four black representatives and a strong white ally in Jim [Ross]," Key wrote, pointing out that this was the first time since 2006 that LRSD - which has been majority-black for some 40 years and is now roughly 70 percent African American - would have a black majority. "Democracy was working for people who were committed to improving our schools."

In October 2014, as the new LRSD members were taking their seats, the Arkansas Department of Education announced it was designating six of Little Rock's 48 public schools as "academically distressed," meaning less than 49.5 percent of their students tested proficient in math and literature on standardized tests. The law governing when the state may take over a school district is amorphous, and according to Key and others I spoke to, arbitrarily applied; there is no formal number, or proportion of schools that must be labeled in "distress" for a takeover to be imminent.

"If your standard is that there are six schools out of 48 that are in distress, therefore we're going to take over, and you try to apply that statewide, that won't work," Key told me. "[The rules state] specifically that a district has to be in distress before an entire district can be taken over. Our district was not in distress. We had six schools that they labeled as distressed. The way the law is written, they could have taken those six schools over and done whatever they wanted with those six schools. That's obviously not what happened."

According to Key, the majority-new LRSD school board immediately got wind of the fact that a state takeover was looming, and began working diligently with administrators across the district to "prioritize work with [those six] schools" and get them up to snuff. He says LRSD board members were in constant contact with the state board and then-LRSD superintendent Dexter Suggs, developing actions that adhered to suggestions and recommendations from both parties. "At every step in this process the state approved of the LRSD's plans," Key wrote. But those efforts would ultimately prove fruitless.

Despite a rally that USA Today reports included "hours of testimony, much of it emotional, from students, teachers and community members opposed to the takeover," and hundreds of emails sent to state education board members in defense of the LRSD board, on January 28, the state voted 5-4 to dismantle the LRSD school board and seize oversight of the district. "Several state board members agreed...that the LRSD board was dysfunctional and had been for a long time, ignoring the fact that a majority of the board had recently been elected. The state board, the people charged with oversight of our public schools, perpetuated the 'awfulizing narrative,' a phrase used elsewhere to explain how public schools are summarily criticized without nuance or specificity."

Key suggests that most of the state education board members who voted for the takeover - all Democratic nominees of the outgoing Democratic governor - were motivated less by concern for failing schools and more by ideological opposition to the institution of public education. Neil Sealy, of Arkansas Community Organizations, a progressive grassroots group that was part of the pushback to HB1733, echoed this sentiment when he spoke to me, saying, "They had a State Board of Ed that was highly influenced by Walton money and the Chamber of Commerce." In his piece, Key is more specific in identifying the ties he believes bind some state board members to the Walton mission of privatization:

Diane Zook voted for the takeover. Her nephew (Gary Newton, head of the Walton-backed lobbyist group Arkansas Learns) is a leading proponent of charter schools for the Walton Family Foundation in Arkansas, and her husband is the president of the state Chamber of Commerce. Vicki Saviers voted for the takeover. She helped start a local charter school and served on the board of Arkansans for Education Reform, both ventures backed by money from the Walton Family Foundation. Kim Davis voted for the takeover. He accepted a job with the Walton Family Foundation five months after the takeover. Toyce Newton voted for the takeover. She is the president and CEO of a nonprofit community development organization that receives financial support from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. These four members have direct ties to foundations that are purposefully undermining our public schools.

Key, like many others I spoke to, says while some LRSD schools were indeed in real academic trouble and could accurately be described as failing their students, those schools were not representative of the entire district. What's more, wholesale takeover of the LRSD and dismissal of the local board offers few reparative options. "There's a list of maybe 15 or so solutions that, if there is a school or district in academic distress, these are the things that the state can do. Of course, their gradations of possibilities were the most intrusive, being the takeover. They immediately chose the one that was most disruptive to local governments and most disruptive to the school system."

Key also sees the dismantling of the LRSD school board, and the shift of political agency away from locally elected figures to the state, as having clear racial undertones. He writes, "[A] majority black school board in a majority black school district was displaced by whites who accept the status quo about the education of many of our children."

Benji Hardy, an education writer for the Arkansas Times, even while calling Barclay Key's piece a "polemic," wrote it was "right to emphasize that the state takeover involved the transfer of political authority from a majority-black policymaking body to state leaders who are mostly white. In a district and a city so prominently defined by race - not just in 1957, but in all the intervening decades as well - that fact simply cannot be glossed over as merely happenstance, as just an unfortunate aside. I think it's fair to say that most of the African American community in Little Rock doesn't see it as an aside."

Insult to Injury

The takeover of Little Rock - specifically through the district-wide designation of "academic distress" - grabbed the attention of public school education advocates from around the state. It signified, for many, a bold willingness, perhaps even an eagerness, for the state to intervene beyond the boundaries of what many had previously considered thinkable. Certainly, the state education board had taken over districts before. But if Little Rock - the state capital and its most populous school district, with almost 25,000 students - was fair game with just six academically distressed schools out of nearly 50, then surely any other district could, in whole or in part, potentially be taken over by the state. 

Lavina Grandon, president of the board of Rural Community Alliance, voiced this idea when I spoke with her. "In rural Arkansas, we've said, 'They won't ever take over Little Rock, and so as long as they're not taking over Little Rock, they can't take over us either.'" The state's choice to send LRSD into receivership, she said, had served as a "wakeup call."

Also a wakeup call, for many others I spoke to, was newly elected Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson's installation of former Arkansas state senator Johnny Key (no relation to Barclay Key) as the state's Education Commissioner. Key's appointment this March demanded a change to Arkansas law, since he lacked the legally mandated "teacher certificate, master's degree and 10 years education experience" previously required. Seen as a Walton ally and supporter of school privatization (as a senator in 2013, he was pivotal in increasing sixfold the enrollment limits of the Arkansas Virtual Charter School), Johnny Key instantly became the de facto head of Little Rock schools.

Commissioner Key then appointed attorney Baker Kurrus as superintendent of LRSD. (His predecessor, Dexter Suggs, was forced to step down following accusations he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation.) Kurrus had sent his children to public schools in Little Rock and served on the LRSD school board for 12 years. Though the local teachers' union, the Little Rock Education Association, voiced support for the appointment, the swiftness of his hiring, on the heels of Johnny Key's seemingly rushed placement, left more than a few concerned. Hardy noted that Kurrus "has no professional background in education, which meant the hiring required a waiver of rule and statute from the State Board of Education. This was accomplished at a special meeting of the state board that was announced barely 24 hours in advance, and with no evident solicitation of input from anyone in the community." Still others questioned the state's seemingly circular logic in dissolving the "dysfunctional" LRSD school board, only to then appoint a former member "who served during some of the board's most tumultuous - some might say dysfunctional - years" as superintendent.

Education advocates told me they were perhaps most disturbed by the fact that seven months after the takeover, the state still hadn't offered a game plan for how it would repair Little Rock's "academically distressed" schools. If the state had no clear strategy for fixing those schools, why had it bothered to take them over in the first place?

"What's the plan to make these schools better?" Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, asked when I spoke to her. "Literally, there's really not a plan, there's never been a plan. Right now, you're still hearing community members out there saying, how are you going to get those six schools out of academic distress and keep the rest out? How are we going to do that? There's not a definite...roadmap to say how we do this."

Neil Sealy, of Arkansas Community Organizations, expressed the same sentiment. "This new superintendent, instead of talking about improving achievement here in those six distressed schools, or overall - because we know there's still an achievement gap [between black and white students] - instead of addressing those issues, he's been talking about building new buildings, closing outmoded schools, and that's been the mantra. Why are we not focusing on the kids instead of the buildings?"

"Baker Kurrus is getting all these credits," State Representative John Walker, who argued a desegregation case in Arkansas courts for nearly three decades (NPR dubbed the recently settled suit "one of the longest running" cases in the country) told me. Walker was likely referring to recent statements by Johnny Key suggesting Kurrus was achieving daily successes in Little Rock's schools. "So I sent an email asking him to tell me what evidence there is that anything he says is even in place or is working or will work. 'Can I see all your writings or any of your writings?' And he says, 'I have no writings.' He has no writings. I've asked Commissioner Key if he has anything that will show that any of these things are working or will work. And he has [none]. But nonetheless he has announced that Baker's doing all these wonderful things. And when I ask him to explain what the things are, he can't do it."

In an email exchange with Baker Kurrus, I asked what vision the state board has for the LRSD in the immediate future. He responded:

"I couldn't answer for the state, but I do know that Arkansas Department of Education has written in its reports that it was concerned about the lack of consistent management, poor lines of authority, poor communication, poor implementation of instructional interventions, and other related operational details. During my tenure the ADE has been very supportive of LRSD's efforts with respect to governance, organizational structure, consistent instructional and testing strategies, staffing, and a number of other related operational changes that were needed."

He added, "I am very focused on serving the educational needs of our district through our system of LRSD schools. Competition exists, and has existed, for a number of years. I want LRSD to be the district of choice for all of our patrons and their students."

The Rise and Fall of HB1733

The sense of outrage over state overreach and Walton encroachment that followed the Little Rock takeover likely helped fuel the backlash against HB1733.

Reportedly written by Scott Smith, head of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a nonprofit that receives $3 million in grants annually from the Walton Family Foundation, the bill would have granted the state power to take over any district deemed in academic distress in favor of an "Achievement School District." As Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times wrote, the law would "make all school teachers and administrators fire-at-will employees without due process rights. It would destroy one of the two last remaining teacher union contracts in Arkansas. It allows for the permanent end of democratic control of a school district or those portions of it privatized. It would capture property tax millage voted by taxpayers for specific purposes, including buildings, and give them to private operators. It would allow seizure of buildings for private operators at no cost."

In short, it looked an awful lot like charter legislation currently being passed around the country, often with the backing of Walton Family Foundation dollars. And that set off alarm bells for those on the side of Arkansas' public education system.

"I think that a big part of [the pushback to] HB1733 is that Arkansas educators were very familiar with the Recovery School District in Louisiana [and] the Achievement School District in Tennessee," Tony Prothro, assistant executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, told me. "We had seen those bills and those types of legislation passed in those states. There was basically no communication, no groundwork, nothing within the communities, within the education realm. All of a sudden we have a bill that, to a large degree, mirrors the same type of legislation that had passed in these other states. The author of the bill, I truly believe, was trying to solve an issue: chronically failing schools. But the solution in HB1733 was not one that we could support."

Shortly before the bill's appearance, the State Board of Education released a list of 22 schools that were "academically distressed." Six of those schools, as previously mentioned, were in Little Rock; the rest were in districts throughout the state. While many were located in urban areas, rural schools were represented on the list as well. Lavina Grandon, of Rural Community Alliance, has been fighting rural school district consolidation around Arkansas for more than three decades. Wary of the implications for the schools she works with - Arkansas is overwhelmingly rural - she knew RCA needed to be on the frontlines of the battle against the bill.

"Most of [the schools on the list] weren't rural...but some of them were, and all you have to do is manipulate that definition of an academically distressed school a little bit, and you can add a whole bunch more to that list," she told me. "We have enough accountability laws in Arkansas that any school district can be targeted for takeover or elimination through those laws. We knew that they were just starting with academic distress, that it was not going to end up there....The fact is that a slight manipulation of the data could throw a lot more schools into academic distress, very slight. Then there would be lots of rural schools caught in it. There are some [on the list] already, and they are most vulnerable."

Perhaps equally important in sparking an immediate negative response to the bill among Arkansas public education watchers was its familiarity. During the 2013 legislative session, Walton-backed forces had attempted to pass HB1040, a bill that sought to create a special, autonomous panel to handle all charter-related issues, thereby circumnavigating the state board of education. Though that legislation was defeated, it appeared to Grandon and others to be just the latest in an ongoing series of public school privatization attempts.

"This wasn't our first dance," Grandon said of HB1733 when we talked. "We've recognized the threat from privatization forces for years. In Arkansas, you can go all the way back to the late '90s, when there was the Murphy Commission, then the Blue Ribbon Commission. All of those were financed and instigated by the same people who were pushing HB1733, and the purpose was to define public schools as failing and needing not just drastic improvement, but even a whole, 'Let's tear them down and rebuild them into something else, because there is no way to fix this monster.'"

Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel/Citizens First Congress, told me the bill had been "silly," but deeply revealing. "Their reason for filing the bill is they said that the state rejected too many charter school applicants, and in reality they had only rejected [maybe] two or three proposals, and they were grossly inadequate. It really kind of exposed to me the extremism of their view - that they really don't want any accountability or transparency."

If experience decoding privatization attempts helped public school advocates recognize the numerous problematic aspects of HB1733, experience in coalition-building turned out to be equally important in organizing for its defeat. As more than one Arkansan pointed out to me, the state has a long legacy of progressive action despite being in the deep South, largely rural and intensely red. Yes, there's the whole Clinton association. But more substantively, progressive groups in the state often work in collaboration on campaigns that fall within their places of overlap. (It's why, for example, Arkansas is the only southern state to approve the Medicaid expansion - though its future under Republican governor Hutchinson remains to be seen.)

It should also be noted that there's frequent collaboration between nonpartisan groups that share the same end goals; say, ensuring that public schools not only remain viable, but that they do their very best to serve all of Arkansas' children. Arkansas teachers union, superintendents group and the school board coalition all enlisted in the fight, not based on partisan leanings but because the issue of protecting public schools sits at the heart of their collective mission. That spirit of collaboration gave opposition groups a head start in challenging the bill.

"We don't all agree on everything, unfortunately," Bill Kopsky told me. "But we focus on trying to make progress so we [can] play defense on the things that we do agree on. We were able to pretty instantaneously come together on the bill when it was filed because we had already laid the groundwork, had the relationships with each other and had good working relationships."

Arkansas Education Association President Brenda Robinson shared a similar sentiment. "That was the beauty with all of this. We'd already met with the stakeholders. We already had a good relationship. We've been meeting for years and years. We've had to work on building that collaboration. And because that was already strong, we were able to move forward and work quickly getting the word out and messaging. We were able to do that really efficiently because we already had a good coalition built prior to [HB1733] happening. I think in all of our meetings, we've just always talked about what's best for public schools."

What followed was round-the-clock organizing on every possible front. Each group rallied its membership base, creating a groundswell of opposition from across the state that was impossible for House Education Committee Chair Bruce Cozart to ignore. "What you basically had was a collaboration, a combined effort from, you might say, all of the education groups in Arkansas," Boyce Watkins, advocacy director for Arkansas School Boards Association told me. "And not just them, but the people they touch, which is a significant number of people. Now whenever you have that broad of a base contacting legislators and telling them, we don't want this, then legislators are put in a position where they listen to that. They're elected officials."

Neil Sealy of Arkansas Community Organizations describes being surprised by the wide-open destructive potential of the bill, and offered details about the on-the-ground efforts it inspired among his group's members. "When 1733 came down, it looked like, wow, this is the game plan, right? We did a lot of phone calls, got our members calling the committee and...targeted the 10 Democrats. I'm not sure how it happened that there were 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans [on the House Education Committee]. But whoever did that was very smart. We also did a lot of radio. We have a couple of talk shows. We did a big show about the bill and the phone rang off the hook."

"Our members were already mobilized in a sense, because we had a few bills we were trying to get passed we needed their support on," Candace Williams, executive director of the RCA, told me. "We tell them to call legislators, tweet them, Facebook them, email them. Whatever we needed them to do, they were there. When this issue came up it was red-flagged, so we already had them in motion. We presented them with this and told them, 'Hey, call your legislator and tell them that this is something you don't want. This is what can happen to your school district, potentially.'"

Tony Prothro of ASBA (the state school boards association) also sat down face-to-face with a key lawmaker in a meeting that likely moved the needle, though it wouldn't be obvious until later. "We met with the chief legislator of the bill, along with several other groups - the administrator's association, the teacher's association, a parent group advocate was there," he told me. "At that point it did not look like the bill was going to be withdrawn or greatly modified, so we made the call out to our membership....It was a huge outcry from, I think, all entities to show that Arkansas does not want to go down this path at this time."

"So, then it becomes a math problem," Kopsky told me, reflecting on how the coalition continued to bear down on those who might be swayed. "You just start counting votes on the committee and who's strongly supportive of it and who's strongly opposed to it and who's in between. And there's always somebody in between."

In the end, the strategy worked, bringing an abrupt halt to HB1733's progress toward the House floor. Cozart pulled the bill on March 17, just 11 days after it was submitted. Max Brantley, of the Arkansas Times, spoke to the legislator shortly after the call was made, and quotes him as saying "the governor wanted [a bill] like this" while also stating it hadn't been Hutchinson's bill. Brantley also spoke with former LRSD board member Jim Ross, who told him bill opponents had heard "there was pressure [to pull the bill] from the Walton family, who are tired of the bad press."

The defeat of HB1733 was surely the result of multiple actions and groups working together (Brantley says Cozart suggested "the input of school boards and administrators around the state made a big difference"), but the sheer diversity of those involved likely tipped the scales.

"[O]nce you allow the takeover of these poor black districts it's just a matter of time before the poor white districts are taken over. And then the other districts are taken over at whim depending on what the politics of the situation are at a given time. And I think they could see that," Rep. Walker told me.

Hardy, the Arkansas Times education blogger, offered this perspective: "It's tempting to see what happened with HB1733 as people speaking truth to power and putting the brakes on this big, bad thing. And I think to some extent, that's what happened. But what may have killed the bill more than anything is an alliance between traditional education groups that are both well-organized and represent fairly powerful parochial interests, not necessarily progressive ones. Superintendents, school boards, teachers in a largely rural and very conservative state. They saw what that bill was trying to do as a threat to their survival. And rightfully so."

The Future of Arkansas

However compelling the story of HB1733 is, as a standalone story or a signifier of a turn in public opinion around charter schools, it raises the question of what the future holds for Arkansas public schools. Within days of its defeat, the House Education Committee was debating another bill that would have allowed charters to take over "underutilized" school facilities. More recently, LRSD teachers learned that there will likely be significant changes to their union's longstanding contract. While the aforementioned legislation fell flat, and the contract negotiations are still underway, it's hard not to imagine these issues as indicative of the direction public education in Arkansas might take. 

Perhaps the lesson imparted to Arkansas' "school choice" advocates isn't that most of the state's citizens reject public school privatization; it's that they won't accept it when it's presented so nakedly. If Walton-backed education reformers have gone back to the drawing board - and there is plenty of reason to suspect they have - it is likely to create a more convincing way to present their agenda for public approval.

"Maybe it surprised the people at the Walton Foundation that they got such pushback from other groups," Benji Hardy told me. "I think there's a growing recognition that the changes being pushed by really gung-ho charter advocates are a threat to the whole system....I wouldn't be surprised if some of that momentum they've had in places like New Orleans and other cities will slow down somewhat, because I think that people are kind of wise to the threat that it poses to the traditional education world.

"But I also wouldn't be surprised if that bill comes back written in such a way that it is very limited only to Little Rock, and therefore is more palatable to others within the state that may see Little Rock as a problem needing to be fixed....From my perspective, a lot of that comes from race and class and prejudices that people have that allow them to think about places like New Orleans or inner-city Memphis or Philadelphia or Little Rock as being different. That those are places with pathological problems."

Neil Sealy said very nearly the same thing when I asked him about looking forward. "I don't see a New Orleans scenario....But I do see a significant increase in charters. And a busting of the teachers union, a downgrade in certification for teaching, and continued [racial] segregation of the schools to parallel the segregation of the neighborhoods. And my fear is that, we got people to rise up this last session from all over the state, but is that going to happen this time around? I think HB1733 was an extreme bill. And my bet is it's going to be not as extreme next time. And it could just target Little Rock."

Rep. Walker, who has been highly vocal and visible in his opposition to the Walton agenda, worries that his retirement - he's 77- might leave public schools without a strong advocate among Arkansas state lawmakers. "I don't want to be vain, but I think that there won't be very much leadership to hold it off when I'm out of the legislature," he told me. "The Democratic Party seems to have been beaten down and they want to be able to get small victories. Which the other side will give, but they're not meaningful to the cause of equity or equality. And they are certainly not racially inclusive kinds of considerations that they will be able to get. The cause of black children will suffer."

In the meantime, public school advocates are doing what they can to stave off privatizing forces and continuing to communicate with allies to maintain ties for the next potential go-round.

Barclay Key, Jim Ross and three other co-plaintiffs, two of them members of the dissolved LRSD school board, have filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Education contesting its takeover of the Little Rock school district. The department has, in turn, appealed the case, sending it to the Arkansas Supreme Court - currently in recess - which has granted an emergency stay. It will likely be months before a decision is rendered and, in the best-case scenario, the suit can proceed.

"We know it's coming back," AEA president Robinson told me. "It was a win now, but we know that we have to keep educating the community. We have to keep educating our parents about our win that they're going to come back...We have to be even stronger and get our message out there to our parents and community about [how] takeovers aren't good. I think we have to change our narrative. We have to tell our stories. We have to talk about what's good in these schools. Until we start telling that narrative, everyone else is telling our story. Which is incorrect, because good things are coming out of public schools."

"I've got some friends and professional colleagues that run some charter schools and they are doing a phenomenal job," ASBA's Tony Prothro told me. "It's not that we're anti-charter, we just need to make sure that the accountability is there, that the need is there, and that they're serving all kids. For instance...if a school is going to come and exist, whether it's a public school, private school, charter schools, whatever, and you do not have transportation for those children to that school, and if you do not provide free and reduced lunches within your school, then you are excluding the kids in the greatest need. If you have a bill that's there that excludes those children from participating, you're segregating. You're going to be segregating based on poverty, which a lot of times goes hand-in-hand with race, and so many other indicators that are there...Serving all kids, I think, is key. And not destroying the public education system."

Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, agrees that continuing community engagement is critical. But the big-picture problem, she suggested, is the very notion of competition-driven education; of commodifying schools, students and communities.

"It's just fundamentally wrong, marketplace-driven public education," she told me. "That's not the foundation or belief system on which public education was founded. If we're moving in that direction, then let's have that conversation and not this fake, 'Let me cut the legs from the entire structure and claim it's [the] market.' No, it's not, because I think if you really had the market conversation, parents would not want that. That's not what public education is there to do. It's actually there to ensure that every child gets a quality education no matter their social or economic disposition."

"Once they're done with their education, then we can talk about the market crap."

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.


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