Columns » Max Brantley

Waltons attack Little Rock School District

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The latest Walton fortune-funded attack on the Little Rock School District would create a neighborhood charter middle school in majority-white upscale West Little Rock.

The Little Rock School District recognizes the need for a school there and has land under contract for a new middle school.

But the application for a charter school, if approved this fall by the state Board of Education (whose newest member, Diane Zook, has been a financial supporter of the group pushing the charter school), could be up and running first.

This charter school — quasi-private (no school board, private management) — would be publicly financed and free to all comers. With a location far from the inner city, it's likely, however, to have whiter and more prosperous students than most Little Rock schools.

Which is, of course, the idea.

Many of the parents to be served by this proposed middle school could easily reach Henderson Middle School at John Barrow and I-630 and J.A. Fair High School (a charter high school is also planned eventually). They aren't interested. Parents from better economic backgrounds aren't willing to commit their kids to try to make those majority-black schools work. Easier to start their own neighborhood school with public money.

Enter the Walton Foundation millions, ever ready to further cripple a school district with a teachers union.

In time, the Waltons envision a crazy quilt of dozens of small school districts in Little Rock, separate and almost certainly unequal.

A young law student named John Walker predicted this in 1964. He wrote: "The composition of the schools in the 'new South' will reflect the ethnic, economic and educational composition of particular neighborhoods. The result will be more 'segregated' schools, some located in ghettoes, some in exclusive suburbs. This result has come to bother many educators and citizens who believe that it is important to the progress of this country that students of all races and backgrounds learn and grow together."

The Quest Middle School application for Little Rock illustrates that money, not equity, now rules. An organizational meeting was hosted by the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, supported by Walton Foundation money. The driving organizer in Little Rock has been Gary Newton, a former Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce officer and longtime critic of the Little Rock School District, whose formation of the private Arkansas Learns was funded by the Walton Foundation. He was recently hired to head Arkansans for Education Reform, a charter school lobby funded by the Walton Foundation and other wealthy Arkansans. They use the work of the Walton-funded education reform school at the University of Arkansas to support their agenda.

The Quest Charter School will use Texas-based Responsive Education Solutions as its manager. The Walton Foundation has already paid it to plan charter schools in Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

Newton would tell you it's all about quality education. The implication is that Little Rock schools uniformly suck and charter schools are uniformly good. That's not true.

There are successful Little Rock schools. And "charter school" is not synonymous with success.

In New York, where the tough Common Core testing is now used, conventional public schools outperformed charter schools, including the much-lauded KIPP schools.

A national study by a research center at Stanford University found Arkansas was one of a handful of states where charter school were outperformed by conventional schools in reading and math.

That same study took special note of Responsive Education Solutions. In comparing its results with comparable conventional public schools, the report said, "the overall effects on growth for students attending Responsive Ed schools are negative."

The Little Rock School District will fight this school as another case of state-financed segregation. In a world declared post-racial by the U.S. Supreme Court and controlled by big money, I don't like the district's odds of success.

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