Saturday, March 7, 2015

Bill allows outside nonprofit to operate school district taken over by state

Posted By on Sat, Mar 7, 2015 at 10:47 AM

OUTSOURCING: Rep. Bruce Cozart has a plan to let private organizations run public schools in Arkansas.
  • OUTSOURCING: Rep. Bruce Cozart has a plan to let private organizations run public schools in Arkansas.
Legislation filed Friday by Rep. Bruce Cozart, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, would expand the state's sweeping powers to operate a school or school district in state receivership for academic reasons, including allowing the state to contract with an outside nonprofit to operate the district.

I've sent a message to Cozart to ask  if he sees this specifically as a vehicle to turn over operation of the Little Rock School District, recently taken over by the state, to an outside agency. Currently, the state education commissioner serves as the controlling authority. The district's superintendent, Dexter Suggs, is continuing to serve in an interim capacity. The School Board was abolished.

The bill establishes a state "achievement school district." 

It authorizes the commissioner of education — soon to be former Sen. Johnny Key, an ally of the Walton Family Foundation in aggressive push of the "choice" education reform agenda, including privately operated charter schools — to assign a taken-over district to the achievement school district and to "Take any other necessary and proper action, as determined by the state board, that is allowed by law including without limitation by the  department concerning the academic practices and staffing of the school."

Key language:

The Commissioner of Education may: 

(1) Directly operate or contract with one or more not-for- profit entities to operate academic distress schools or school districts assigned to the achievement school district, including providing direct  services to students;

The commissioner can assign whole districts or single schools to the state "achievement district" for purposes of such out-sourcing.

The law significantly advances existing takeover powers by allowing the commissioner to waive the teacher fair dismissal act. Due process in firing? Gone. The state can also waive the fair hearing law and any requirement to engage in collective bargaining. Employees become at-will — fireable for any, or no, reason

The nonprofit operators need not hire licensed teachers.; observe laws on length of day and holidays; or have a school board. The nonprofit operator DOES get to claim the voter-approved local property tax, whether residents of the district like that or not. 

If only a specific school is taken over, the rest of an existing school district can be forced to provide transportation, meals and such for the taken-over school. This scheme is followed in some other states where charters have taken hold on a broader basis. You could call it taxation without representation. The Walton Family Foundation and the education "reformers" it subsidizes at the Walton campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville probably would call it canny business practice,

The nonprofit operator can get existing school buildings — again built by local tax millage — for free (sorry, $1 a year.)

Minimum takeover period would be three years. But it could be five years before residents would get their schools back under local control. 

Yes it applies after the fact to the Little Rock School District.

A public school or school district that is classified by the State Board of Education as being in academic distress and taken over by the state board as of the effective date of this act is eligible to become part of the achievement school district at the discretion of the Commissioner of Education.


I'm surprised the bill specifically doesn't allow these charters a waiver from civil rights, gun, vaccination and public record laws, given the Republican backing. Gays MAY be discriminated against, of course, because they are not covered by state civil rights law. And Bart Hester aims to keep it that way

I've had persistent reports of Gov. Asa Hutchinson having met with some of the wealthy Arkansans who are backing the "reform" movement to talk about dramatic upheaval in education. This would certainly be it. It first faces an Education Committee evenly split on partisan lines, but the Billionaire Boys Club (Walton, Stephens, Hussman, Murphy fortunes) has also worked to win friends on the Democratic side.

I fear a cramdown coming. But I'm required to inject now the fact that the public shouldn't be misled by that word "nonprofit." Pro Publica did some reporting on what "non-profit" can mean in the context of outfits that get multi-million-dollar contracts to run public school districts.

Money is swept into a nonprofit charter management company. But then those companies do contract with companies that are decidedly in business for a profit. Given their broad waivers, the management company has no obligation to operate in the best interest of taxpayers, Pro Publica noted.

While relationships between charter schools and management companies have started to come under scrutiny, sweeps contracts have received little attention. Schools have agreed to such setups with both nonprofit and for-profit management companies, but it's not clear how often. Nobody appears to be keeping track.

What is clear is that it can be hard for regulators and even schools themselves to follow the money when nearly all of it goes into the accounts of a private company.

Key to date has declined to say what his thinking is about allowing an existing effort to improve six schools in Little Rock continue or try something different, such as charter takeovers by outside groups. The legislature must first pass a bill making him eligible to hold the post. He currently doesn't have the educational or work qualifications. Monday, March 16, state legislators will pick a citizens advisory committee to communicate with the state about the former Little Rock School District. These committees never have much influence. If Cozart's law comes to pass, they will be the proverbial teats on a boar hog. Might as well just appoint a one-man committee of Gary Newton, the Walton-paid lobbyist for charter schools who bled off a couple hundred more middle class kids into a Chenal Valley Charter School this year. From the Education Gods'  lips to his ear. That's all you need to know.

The person who tipped me on this is convinced this bill opens the door to charterizing of the Little Rock School District, on the model of New Orleans (a failure if you read honest assessments). 

PS — Sources identify Gary Newton and Walton-backed lobbyist Scott Smith as driving the Cozart bill. 

PPS — Helena school district supporters are nervous about this bill, too, fearful it's a vehicle for the state to turn their district over to the KIPP charter school operation, already given some existing schools by the state for token amounts.

PPPS — Diane Ravitch, the doughty foe of the Billionaire Boys Club, told me in an e-mail this morning that these "achievement school districts" are the "reformers'" flavor of the day. They are getting bad reviews in not only New Orleans, where schools remain the worst in the state based on scores, but also Tennessee. They are also being pushed in Georgia.

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