by Max Brantley
Buzz increases on a topic I mentioned earlier.
Gov. Mike Beebe, who'd earlier expressed opposition to the Billionaire Boys Club legislation to strip the state Board of Education of the power to regulate charter schools, is now reportedly pushing for a compromise with Jim Walton, the Walmart heir who's leading other wealthy Arkansans in the push for more charter schools.
A coalition of public school advocates, including Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, had thrown up a roadblock to the Walton legislation in the House. The news now is that Beebe is siding with Walton on getting something passed.
The outline of the new proposal seems to be a codification of an existing charter school review process by Education Department staff members who make reports to the state Board of Education, which is composed of gubernatorial appointees. This would mean the death of the Walton bill to replace charter regulation with a board appointed by legislative leaders (mostly pro-charter Republicans). Pro this idea: It wouldn't change the existing regulatory situation much. Con: Camel's nose in tent. Slippery slope. Waltons aren't known for compromise.
Mostly this issue is an enormous distraction. Pre-K education; after-school work with kids; improving home life; more effective remediation. These are issues with proven worth that could be worked on today, rather than the billionaires' pet education theology, a faith-based idea with little documented results nationally. Why waste time on this? The answer is simple: Money talks.
It's a shame the dickering is being conducted in secrecy. It's a shame it hasn't been accompanied by a public apology from the Waltons' six-figure lobbyist Luke Gordy, who insulted every committed educator in Arkansas the other day by suggesting only the billionaires, not school administrators, care about kids. He presumably would at least exclude those administrators who've hired his wife's educational consulting firm to improve their services to kids in need. And a good job she does, too. Maybe if more people hired her, they'd be spoken of more kindly by Gordy.
Gordy also, by the way, presided as a state Board of Education member over development of a rule that made it difficult for the state to take over a school district for academic deficiencies. He claims such a takeover has never happened. It has several times, but mostly after Luke Gordy left the board to work for the billionaires and the rules were stiffened. Who cares about kids and who cares about money? Good questions.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, who's been the legislative leader of opposition to HB 1040, the Walton charter takeover bill, said the talk of an alternative is omnipresent, but she doesn't know exactly what's being proposed.
"They do not have the votes to pass 1040," she said. "I don't what they're trying to accomplish."
She doesn't sound in a compromising mood. "What was proposed was so onerous and lacked such judgment, how can you assume they'd deal in good faith and do something else that's not as off the chart? How do you take them seriously considering the first proposal?"
UPDATE: Matt DeCample, the governor's spokesman, says what's at work should not be called a "compromise," though it quacks like one to me. Rather, he said, the governor had met with Jim Walton. "They agreed on two things: 1) we do not need to create another bureaucracy to oversee charter schools, and 2) because of the growth of interest in charter schools, the state board spends the majority of its time dealing with charter schools." So Tom Kimbrell, at "the governor's behest," is putting together legislation that would have charter school decisions made first at the staff level in the department. The state Board of Education would then essentially be used as an appeals panel if someone was unhappy with the staff decision. He said details were still being worked out.
This procedure would, presumably, end the charter takeover bill. I've asked Luke Gordy by e-mail, but I'm not holding my breath.