I spent some time last week with a political consultant who's part of the growing army of people funded by the Walton family and other wealthy Arkansans to reshape education in the billionaires' image.
One objective is to destroy the Little Rock School District as it currently exists because it has a teachers' union.
It happens that the consultant moved to her job in Little Rock not long ago, but chose to live in Cabot and commute. Why? The first reason she cited was to avoid placing her high-school-age daughter in the Little Rock School District. I pressed for her thinking, but couldn't really get to the nub of it beyond a general reluctance. She also had friends in Cabot and Cabot has a good school district. Fair enough. Cabot students happen to be whiter and better off economically than Little Rock public school students, but I'll take her word that these were non-factors.
Still, many things the consultant said — including about "failing" Little Rock schools and misinformation about school assignments in the Little Rock district — demonstrated how effective the Billionaire Boys Club has been at selling a poisonous narrative about the Little Rock School District that many don't investigate on their own. Like most things, it's not so simple.
The Waltons are, for example, financing a lobby group that is attempting to balkanize the Little Rock School District into innumerable independent school districts — quasi-private schools in that they are unaccountable to voters but operated with public money, sometimes by private money-making corporations — known as charter schools. The group is currently pushing to build a charter middle school that would grow into a high school to serve the affluent white neighborhoods of western Little Rock. They want to open before Little Rock can get its planned new middle school built. The battle cry: Avoiding the "failed" schools of Little Rock.
Many of the "failed" schools are actually making progress, as measured by inching-up test scores, with the predominantly impoverished populations they serve. And they'd do a lot better if they could have a dose of the economic integration that is a proven boon to student achievement. A shared commitment to the entire district would be beneficial to more children than the charter movement, which has failed nationally to demonstrate its superiority. One of the proven charter laggards, in fact, is the private Texas charter operator chosen by the Walton lobby to run the proposed Chenal Valley charter middle school. The school first must be approved by the state over the Little Rock District's opposition for its segregative impact.
All schools aren't failing. Consider conveniently situated Parkview Arts and Science Magnet, which had four among Arkansas's only 150 National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists this year. Any parent who wants to see the American public education system at work should turn on the cable TV educational access channel the next time they replay the March on Washington program by Parkview students at the Clinton Library. Beautiful singing, speaking and orchestra. The students were very nearly the red, yellow, black and white of hymn — Martin Luther King's dream fulfilled in inspiring harmony.
Parkview is not alone. Those parents who want a new west Little Rock high school (some of them, I'm told, find the county's nearby Robinson High unacceptable on class grounds) could motor a few more minutes east on I-630 to Central High School, which provided 24 — one in every six — of Arkansas's National Merit semi-finalists this year.
Central was, for whatever reason, an uncomfortable choice for the Walton hired hand I lunched with. So I don't expect her patron's organizing effort to be pushing people in THAT direction. It doesn't fit the anti-LRSD narrative. A successful Little Rock charter movement will inevitably destroy it, too.