It was just a little over a year ago when Baker Kurrus was hired as the superintendent of the Little Rock School District. With new Education Commissioner Johnny Key there was a strong concern that the Little Rock school system would be converted to all charter schools and the entire public education system would disappear.
There was talk of the Waltons funding the Boston Consulting Group to make recommendations on what to do with the LRSD. In a February blog post by policy expert Diane Ravitch, high school teacher Peter Greene is quoted as saying that having the Boston Group come into your school district is like finding "the grim reaper at your front door." The recommendations of the Boston Group are consistently to close public schools and to privatize them.
A year later, after watching charter schools spread in Little Rock, Baker Kurrus took a moral stand before the state Board of Education in opposition to charter school expansion. Kurrus pointed out what everyone knows — charter schools skim off the best and easiest to educate students and leave "those other kids" for the public schools to educate.
A former colleague at the University of Arkansas and a staunch charter school proponent once told me that "for charter schools to succeed there must also be a public system." I agreed. Someone must be there to educate the kids who are difficult to educate: special education, English language learners, at-risk children, and those who are "pushed out" of the charters because they are struggling. In Kurrus' presentation he pointed out that 81.9 percent of the kids who left the LRSD were proficient or advanced in literacy and 77.2 percent were proficient or advanced in math.
What happens to the kids left behind in the LRSD?
Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend's admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let's make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let's dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let's take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be "pushed out."
Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn't lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.
But, here is the twist to my proposal. This proposal isn't for the LRSD. Bentonville is the perfect location for this choice system implementation. Bentonville is home to the Walton Family Foundation, which, according to Business Insider, has committed to spend $1 billion over the next five years to support charter schools. According to the New York Times, the Walton Family Foundation has "subsidized an entire charter school system in the nation's capital." Since the Waltons want a charter school system in Little Rock, Washington, D.C. and many other cities, why not have that system right in their home town? Instead of promoting their ideology in faraway cities they could use their own community as the model for what public education should, according to them, look like. The Waltons should be thrilled with this idea. Imagine the drawing card this would be for Walmart as they bring new executives from around the nation and world into their corporate office.
I encourage the Waltons to put their vast resources into making Bentonville a complete charter school model with no traditional public schools. If charters are good for some kids, why not all kids? Bentonville will now have the attention of the rest of the nation. But this time everyone will be watching the schools as well as Walmart corporate offices.
Bentonville already has a couple of highly selective charter schools. Let's see how it works when the charter schools have to serve all the children of Bentonville. Bentonville is the home of Walmart. Why shouldn't Bentonville be the place where they implement the Walmart system of education? If charter schools are so good for other cities, why not Bentonville?
Paul Hewitt is professor emeritus of educational leadership at the University of Arkansas and for the past two years was superintendent of the Fayetteville Public Schools.