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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

School groups fight back against the billionaires

Posted By on Wed, Jan 30, 2013 at 1:18 PM

CHEERS FOR SCHOOLS: Applause greeted remarks at todays news conference by a coalition pushing its own idea of school reform in opposition to a plan floated by some of the states wealthiest people.
  • Brian Chilson
  • CHEERS FOR SCHOOLS: Applause greeted remarks at today's news conference by a coalition pushing its own idea of school reform in opposition to a plan floated by some of the state's wealthiest people.

EDUCATION LEADER STEPS UP: Tom Kimbrell, with AEA president Donna Morey, at news conference.
  • Brian Chilson
  • EDUCATION LEADER STEPS UP: Tom Kimbrell, with AEA president Donna Morey, at news conference.
A new coalition, the Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign, held a news conference today at the Capitol to forthrightly defend Arkansas education against the agenda pushed yesterday by a group led by some of the wealthiest people in Arkansas, including the Walmart, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Murphy Oil, Dillard Department Stores, Koch Industries and Stephens fortunes. By way of introduction, the new coalition said:

"A diverse group of parents, teachers, education leaders, business owners, civil rights leaders and child advocates touted an education reform agenda Wednesday that is backed by decades of research and based on the real needs of students and communities. Their plan builds on the progress Arkansas has made over the past ten years and stands in stark contrast to the education reform agenda of A+ Arkansas, the pro-privatization coalition funded by many of the state’s wealthiest individuals and out-of-state interest groups."

Indeed, privatization — through quasi-private charter schools without elected school board and, they hope, with less state oversight and through vouchers for private and home schoolers — is the major aim of this group, plus carving off money from the existing resources for their pet projects.

Speakers today had an agenda, too:

* Increased access to high-quality preschool
* Expanded after-school and summer programs
* Continuing improvement in preparation and professional development of teachers and
administrators
* Stronger parent, community, student and school partnerships
* More accessible career and technical education opportunities for students
* Continued high accountability for all schools
* Continued support for high quality education for all students

Here's the group's news release. Here's a list of participants and sponsoring organizations, including the Arkansas Education Association, the Arkansas School Boards Association, administrators' groups and more. Dr. Tom Kimbrell, director of the state Education Department, was a significant participant. He can be seen as carrying Gov. Mike Beebe's views against key legislation pushed by the billionaires' group.

From David Koon:

UPDATE: After the news conference, we chatted with Sen. Joyce Elliott, who is helping lead the new coalition in hopes of heading off efforts to expand charter schools in the state. Asked if she believes grassroots and shoeleather can trump the millions of dollars pro-charter groups can throw at the issue, Elliott said she is "exceedingly confident" that they can.

"If you're not willing to do the work, and use money to do the work for you, you become a little bit less willing to do the hard work and the grassroots work," Elliott said. "On the [pro-charter] side, this is an effort that's happening from the top down. Money can help you do that. As we demonstrated today, we're growing our support from the very bottom up. When you do that, you grow the roots you're going to need for the long haul. I'm extremely confident, because this state has finally gotten to the point that we see what the campaign is across the country. People understand what's going on — this notion of privatizing and corporatizing public education... We're exceedingly confident we can do this. We put this group of folks together, and we just started working on this last Friday. We had this many people show up to show their commitment to public schools. "

During one of yesterday's panels at the Doubletree Summit, panelist T. Willard Fair — an African-American school choice advocate who opened Florida's first charter school — publicly called Arkansas's legislative Black Caucus "cowardly" because they'd refused to meet with Fair and Jeb Bush to discuss the issue. Given the opportunity to respond, Elliott fired back, saying that it was not the Black Caucus' responsibility to care whether Fair was insulted or unhappy. Elliott said that while Fair was "over there with the people with the deep pockets," she and other black legislators were meeting with students, teachers and parents.

"I know it's part of his grandstanding," Elliott said, "but that's what they do: they swoop into states and they grandstand. If he thinks he has the right to demand from African-American legislators how we're going to comport ourselves because he happens to be black, he's sorely mistaken. We were where we chose to be, and we don't have to ask his permission."

PS — Speaking of "cowardly" legislators, did anyone see any of the Walton legislative stooges at this event today. No billionaires to cheer at this one, just working educators.

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