Thursday, March 12, 2015

State Board of Education chair says school legislation a surprise. Also: Walton-paid lobbyist introduced to facts

Posted By on Thu, Mar 12, 2015 at 8:46 AM

FACT-FREE: Gary Newton, lobbying for Little Rock school takeover legislation, claims no facts support the belief that Walton money supports the effort. Fact: He's wrong.
  • FACT-FREE: Gary Newton, lobbying for Little Rock school takeover legislation, claims no facts support the belief that Walton money supports the effort. Fact: He's wrong.

A KUAR report
on the pending legislation backed by Walton-funded lobbyists to allow private companies to run parts or all of the former Little Rock School District includes some second thoughts from Little Rock lawyer Sam Ledbetter, chair of the state Board of Education.

Ledbetter voted with a 5-4 majority for the state to take over the Little Rock School District because six of its 48 schools were judged in academic distress, or more than half of their students were not meeting proficiency standards as measured by standardized tests.

That vote came before the legislation, which Gov. Asa Hutchinson supports, was introduced.

The Chairman of the State Board of Education, Sam Ledbetter, speaking personally – and not for the state Board – says turning over some authority of distressed schools in the Little Rock School District was not what he envisioned when the state Board voted earlier this year.

“My thought process would have been different had this bill been pending at the time,” said Ledbetter.

He continued, saying that from his vantage point in the state Board, proceedings concerning the LRSD were not deliberated with a plan to turn over distressed schools to charters.

“This is not anything that I had in mind. It wasn’t anything that I wasn’t aware of, it hadn’t been discussed with me. It wasn’t any…you know, a lot of people I think feel like there was this grand scheme all along. If there was a grand scheme to takeover Little Rock so we could put it an achievement district, or whatever this is, nobody let me in on it,” said Ledbetter.

Gary Newton of Arkansas Learns and Scott Smith of the misleadingly named Arkansas Public School Resource Center wouldn't come clean with KUAR about the dominance of Walton money in paying their salaries. Too bad the reporter couldn't have dropped in the periodic legislative huddle that Newton and Smith  have with Kathy Smith of the Walton Family Foundation out at the Capitol to discuss school legislation for a photo of the direct connection. Scott Smith has reason to be attentive to the Foundation. His organization got $3.35 million from the Walton Foundation in 2014 alone. Check his tax filing.

In addition to Arkansas Learns, Newton is also director of the Arkansans for Education Reform Lobby, which, according to its 2013 tax return, got more than $300,000 that year from the Walton Family Foundation, on top of signifiant past contributions. Newton got about $80,000 in salary and benefits from that association. The Foundation also spent $440,000 that year with two political consulting groups — Southern Meridian (Laurie Lee) and Impact Management. Laurie Lee is toiling again for the Waltons this session.

Over at Arkansas Learns, Newton scored another $77,000 in pay and benefits for being CEO according to 2013 tax filings,, the most recent available. The return didn't identify the source of its some $350,000 in revenue that year, but I'd bet Newton a doughnut the money trail winds its way up to Bentonville. Here's how Newton dodged the Walton connection with KUAR:

Newton said he had no direct role in writing the bill, and he rejects arguments of a heavy-handed influence from any Walton family members.

“I would submit that there is no way to counter conspiracy theory because it’s simply not based I fact, though I understand the fear and conspiracy,” said Newton.

Though Newton does acknowledge some Walton presence behind his work.

"We are supported specifically by Jim Walton, who is on my board. Obviously we are a private organization, I don’t have those numbers in front of me but they are a strong sponsor,” said Newton.

We do have some numbers in front of us. Two paychecks from Walton-backed enterprises and tax records showing millions spent by the Waltons on lobbying the Arkansas legislature. If these aren't facts, do we really want to put Gary Newton in charge of public education in Little Rock?  Remember, too, that Newton led organization of the Quest charter middle school in posh Chenal Valley to drain more middle class kids from Little Rock schools. The Waltons came up with money necessary to close the deal on a building for that enterprise. The Waltons have also poured big money into other  schools operated by the private charter school operator running Quest, Responsive Education Solutions. Another inconvenient fact. Newton's aunt, Diane Zook, is probably the harshest critic of Little Rock on the state Board of Education. Oh and the Walton-financed education reformers at UA are flogging the bill, too.

How do these conspiracy theories get started?

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