When the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a Walton Foundation-paid lobbyist, long devoted critics of the Little Rock School District, lead the messaging for a quarter-billion dollars in new tax debt for the district, it is cause for caution.
I wrote earlier about my reluctance to endorse a refinancing of existing school construction debt to require as much as $250 million in additional tax payments for new schools, repairs and interest. My fear is a Trojan horse strategy by the man in control of Little Rock schools, education commissioner Johnny Key — on behalf of minders at the Walton Family Foundation and the sympathetic owner of the daily newspaper — to upgrade Little Rock school facilities ahead of a takeover of their management by private charter school operators.
At a minimum, I'd hope Key would declare opposition to a renewed legislative effort to allow private takeover of school districts in "academic distress." Little Rock meets that definition because five of its 48 schools fall short of test score proficiency. (So, too, do some charter schools, but Key's department doesn't seem to mind.)
Charter schoolers complain eternally that they don't have construction money as do local school districts. Nationwide, charter schools have difficulty selling bonds for facilities precisely because they lack a tax base. A takeover of taxpayer-financed, recently improved buildings in Little Rock thus would be a dream come true for the Walton gang.
There's been speculation that the new borrowing is meant to drive Little Rock into financial distress. That would add another justification to continued state control. Little Rock already faces deep budget cuts because of the coming loss of state desegregation aid. It faces more problems because of declining enrollment (at a loss of $6,600 per student per year) linked to expansion of charter schools. The bond refinance would dig the hole deeper. Why? Because, thanks to a growing tax base, the 12.4 mills of bond-pledged property tax currently produces millions annually in excess of the amount needed to make bond payments. State law allows capture of that money for operations, but not if it is repledged to construction debt.
A Little Rock School District expert told me:
"The borrowing of $160 million at this point, without some accommodation for the cuts that are already necessary, the operations cuts needed to fund the additional debt service and the cuts from enrollment losses, seems to be fiscally dangerous."
The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, which spearheaded the state takeover of the school district, is working to build support for a vote on bond refinancing. Some of its members aren't wholly in the pocket of the Waltons' "school choice" alliance. One, whose devotion to the schools I credit, said:
"What are the options? We can turn the school district over to the charters, which I don't want to do. I totally get what is happening with their drain of students, but I have to work with the hand I am dealt and I worry about the kids that will be left and I do not want to abandon them. They will still live here and need a boost."
But this school advocate acknowledges a further drain of students is likely in the years ahead, maybe by 5,000 or so. Those remaining, on balance, likely will be more difficult students — poorer and further behind.
The district needs more money — even a tax INCREASE, which I'd happily support if I didn't fear state education leadership's desire for the district's constructive demise
There's little reason for trust. When not bitterly trashing Little Rock schools, Walton lobbyists and subsidized propagandists at the University of Arkansas pump misleading "research" into the pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The latest is that charter schools are responsible for only a small percentage of transfers out of the Little Rock School District. Others move or go to private schools, too.
This ignores a key fact. Expanding charter schools take children BEFORE they ever enter the Little Rock School District. And the state doesn't apply the same accountability standards to charter schools that it applies to Little Rock schools. Furthermore, the researchers don't talk about the success that many of those leaving the district have achieved in what the Waltonites love to brand as failures. Nor do they delve in any useful fashion into the impact of charters on the achievement of those taken away.
When they say it's all about the kids, I'm more inclined to believe it's more about the money.