Columns » Max Brantley

Who'll run public schools?

Will the Walton billions take over the Little Rock School District?

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This column was written before Rep. Bruce Cozart pulled House Bill 1733. Updated coverage.

That's the immediate question posed by House Bill 1733, pending before a House committee evenly split between Republicans (generally reliable Walton votes) and Democrats (generally supportive of democratic control of school districts.)

The bill is by Rep. Bruce Cozart of Hot Springs. He and four other legislators got a free trip last summer to Washington to meet on "education reform" courtesy of Laurie Lee, a lobbyist who's been working to help the Walton Family Foundation agenda. The Walmart heirs spend billions across the country on "school choice," meaning taking over conventional public school districts with privately operated charter schools.

The bill allows the state education commissioner to privatize districts judged in academic distress as, coincidentally, the Little Rock School District has been. Only six of its 48 schools are technically in distress, but the bill would apply to all district operations. The commissioner could take buildings and local tax millage, break the union contract, and fire employees without cause or hearing. Then, the commissioner could turn over schools to private operators. They could then stock "failing" schools with new student bodies. They'd seek motivated parents willing to abide by rules that can't be enforced in all-comer conventional public schools. They'd discourage special needs students. They'd "succeed," if comparisons of apples and kumquats can be called a fair test.

Little Rock parents, teachers and supporters turned out 300 on a rainy night last week to oppose the bill. Monday, nine educational advocacy groups announced their opposition, from the PTA, to school superintendents, to school boards, to the Arkansas Education Association. Every school in the state is potentially at risk; a Walton-dominated Education Board need only set the failure score high enough.

The Walton Foundation's Kathy Smith meets regularly with lobbyists her employer supports — Lee, Gary Newton of Arkansas Learns and Scott Smith of the Arkansas Public School Research Council. Why they don't own up to this initiative is a mystery. Newton, whose aunt Diane Zook sits on the Board of Education and spouts his talking points, dishonestly claimed the other day it's tinfoil talk to see the Waltons' hand in this. Facts apparently matter as little to Newton as they do to the propagandists the Waltons support at their university subsidiary in Fayetteville. How monumental is this legislation? It provides a means to a permanent end of an elected school board.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is trying to spin himself as a moderate on this, as he does on other issues with extreme outcomes. But the record shows he wants to strip educational requirements for the education commissioner so Johnny Key can take the job. Key once ran a religion-themed nursery school, but otherwise lacks education credentials. His main credential is as an acolyte of the Waltons. In 2013, he wrecked the school choice law and used trickery to expand the giveaway of tax dollars to help homeschoolers with a 2,500-student expansion of the so-called "virtual academy."

The reformers like to talk about the New Orleans "miracle." Don't buy it. Ten years of charter schools have produced little to brag about there, including an absence of students who can meet the minimum ACT score Arkansas Republicans want to set to qualify for an Arkansas lottery scholarship.

Conventional public schools are making progress in Arkansas. Even Little Rock, with its overwhelming population of at-risk poor minority kids, has improved, if not enough.

The Waltons want Little Rock's millions in taxes to finance their pet and unproven notions. It's a rare day when money doesn't prevail. But an energized school community might, for once, have a power greater than their hoarded gold.

UPDATE: At press time came word that the bill had been pulled for this session amid an outpouring of unflattering national attention to Walton family string-pulling on the effort.

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