by Max Brantley
The most unsettling news today were repeated mentions of the growing apush beyond charter school funding — public money for quasi-private schools operated often by private corporations — to direct voucher support for private schools. Such legislation is going to come up in Arkansas again this year and a UA professor on the payroll of the Walton-created school choice lobbying arm at the family university in Fayetteville was among those touting it today.
The Walton Family Foundation — in another huge coincidence — announced today it had pumped $158 million into school choice in 2012, including $60 million on lobbying organizations ($9 million in Arkansas alone for the organization that sponsored today's panel discussions), and expected to continue that effort this year.
Patrick Wolf, who holds an endowed chair in school reform at UA; Jim Cooper, chair of the state board of Education; Bill Dillard III, scion of the department store family, and Luke Gordy, the Walton family's chief paid lobbyist, were on the first panel. Gordy beat up on the "liberal press," meaning me, for writing about the scant regulation of charter schools. He talked about kids being "held prisoner in schools where they are being underserved." Gordy complained about failure of the state Board of Education to close public schools for academic failure. He didn't mention that, as Board chair, he wrote the previously weak rule on closure for academic reasons that has recently been stiffened. He also didn't list a specific charter school closed for academic reasons, as opposed to management deficiencies, which have been numerous. He also didn't mention that some of the most touted Arkansas charter schools, including one that helped pack the crowd with students today, haven't gained "achieving" status for middle school grades. It is a tough time, after all. Gordy insulted a large group of educators in the meeting by asserting they only cared about themselves, not school children. Wolf touted his own study on the benefits of giving parents money to leave conventional public schools. Dillard said the company faces difficulties in recruitment because of deficiencies in education. He said competition was good for schools.
Coming later the speakers include Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman and former Murphy Oil CEO Claiborne Deming.
I can tell you some dedicated school people left the first session steaming. Luke Gordy's broad brush dismissal of virtually anyone who works in education as a self-interested hack uninterested in children was a slap in the face to tens of thousands of hard-working, committed people. I've heard him give that spiel many times myself. He's made so much money working for the Waltons so long, he might even believe it. He also is likely in a bad mood because he currently lacks the votes to move his charter school bill out of committee, I've been further reliably informed. But when you have $9 million to spend, peeling off three votes might be easier than it otherwise would be for mere mortals.
At the second panel, D-G publisher Walter Hussman touted lower costs per student at eStem versus the Little Rock School District. Money is not the issue, but accountability and choice, he said. He urged more testing to compare schools. He said single-letter grading of schools encouraged schools to do better. T. Willard Fair, a charter school advocate from Florida, blasted Arkansas's black legislators for not attending the session and said the argument that charter schools would lead to resegregation was "hogwash." Jim Walton also emphasized lower spending on charter schools — then talked of his support for making funding equitable at charter schools, particularly for construction.