Monday, February 2, 2015

The Little Rock School District takeover: Is transparency in peril?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 3:42 PM

I've written in recent days about the hiring by the Walton Family Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation of the Boston Consulting Group to advise on a school initiative. That will include next week BCG visits to 46 Little Rock schools in one day for focus groups. I'd hate to see the bill for that consulting.

What's in the works? So far, I have no answers from the Walton Family Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation. But history tells us the consulting group has worked in other cities and invariably has recommended heavy privatization as a cure to presumed woes.

Today, a member of a group in Philadelphia that fought to preserve local control of the schools sent me a web item about a three-year legal battle to get records about BCG's recommendations there, which included many unpopular school closings and mass charter utilization.

I'm not saying this is about to happen in Little Rock. But private foundation funding, BCG's employment, the demonstrated interest of the backers in upending a traditional school district and the Walton Foundation's demonstrated interest in charter schools — along with increasing opaqueness about what's going on in Little Rock — all sound similar to the Philadelphia story.

In 2012, the Boston Consulting Group came under intense criticism for a controversial plan that promoted school closings, massive charter expansion, and privatization of key functions within the District. Under its multimillion-dollar contract with the William Penn Foundation, BCG agreed to provide the foundation with a number of “contract deliverables,” one of which was identifying schools for closure.

In court proceedings regarding our case, the District sought to make a troubling, and fortunately unsuccessful, argument that “certain stakeholders and members of the philanthropic community” ought to have special access to information denied to the public – a move that we think is closely akin to pay-to-play.

We argued that large donors, such as former William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak, had special access to school-closing documents and to District officials. An Ethics Board investigation later found that Nowak did have private meetings with District officials and reviewed and commented on draft reports.

Who's met with who in Arkansas, you wonder? And when? And to discuss what?

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