Columns » Max Brantley

Making sausage

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I've written before about the Billionaire Boys Club — inheritors of great wealth like publisher Walter Hussman, Murphy Oil exec Claiborne Deming, Jackson T. Stephens Jr. and Sam Walton's son, Jim, the Arvest banker — who have been pushing the so-called school reform movement.

Luke Gordy, a hired lobbyist for the group, will tell you that the Billionaires' legislative agenda includes improvement to teacher certification procedures. But the real push is for a bill to take the cap off charter schools allowed in Arkansas. The cap is now 24. There are 18 charter schools in operation, but the "reformers" want no limits, particularly in Pulaski County because of their animus toward the local school districts and union teachers there.

No study has yet proved any educational magic in charter schools as a whole, the heart-tugging "Waiting for Superman" documentary notwithstanding. But money has won the war, including with President Obama, otherwise reviled by the billionaire businessmen. There will be more charter schools. That doesn't mean there should not be robust debate about whether the number should be unlimited. Whether geographic distribution should be a factor. Whether violation of court desegregation orders should be considered. Whether charters should be permitted in localities itching to avoid consolidation of a small district or to flee children of an objectionable race.

Billionaires don't want to have this discussion. They want more charters and no strings. To achieve this goal, Jim Walton has been spreading his money around. His father famously prohibited use of monetary favors to influence Walmart business decisions. But Walton understands the legislature doesn't operate by such a high ethical standard. He has contributed roughly $60,000 at last count, based on followthemoney.org reports and what one of his lobbyists told me, to legislative candidates, the governor and the Arkansas Republican Party. He's targeted several people who might serve on the House and Senate Education committees. His lobbyist, Burt Stacy, told me a few weeks ago he was confident the Education Committee in the House would be solid, but the Senate could be more difficult. I later found out why. Republicans were offended that Stacy wouldn't make a large contribution to the Senate Republican caucus. Walton prefers to make individual contributions, Stacy told me. Republicans also wanted some indication that Walton would look more often to bring the caucus to the table on other legislative issues. This, too, apparently was viewed as presumptuous.

Republicans were so unhappy with Stacy's response they threatened to not seek Education Committee assignments. A key Republican told me in no uncertain terms that Republicans were offended by the Walton effort to buy influence. As late as the day before Senate organization last week, a Republican insider was predicting that only one Republican would choose the Education Committee. Before the day was over, however, four had signed up. Did Walton promise to fork over more money or be more solicitous of Republican feelings? Did Republicans simply realize the futility of standing up to a Walton? Financial reports and time will tell.

Stacy says his work is only about helping people "who are for better education." The problem, of course, is that there are many different and contentious ideas to achieve that noble goal. The dickering with legislators is easier to characterize. A lobbyist made campaign contributions in hopes of future support. Several Republican legislators didn't think the initial offer was high enough. Something appears to have made the lobbyist's overtures more palatable, judging by heightened interest in previously unexciting education committee service. You can apply a lot of words to this, but "reform" isn't one of them.

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