Saturday, September 12, 2015

ForwARd Arkansas, the Walton Family Foundation and the future of public education

Posted By on Sat, Sep 12, 2015 at 1:53 PM

click to enlarge FORWARD: Sherece West-Scantlebury, Jared Henderson and Kathy Smith address the state Board of Education on Thursday. - BENJI HARDY
  • FORWARD: Sherece West-Scantlebury, Jared Henderson and Kathy Smith address the state Board of Education on Thursday.

On Thursday, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to endorse the recommendations of ForwARd Arkansas, the collaboration between the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to develop an overarching plan for public education in Arkansas.

That vote was a foregone conclusion. The state board was itself a partner with the foundations in their development of the document; it would have been surprising if any board member had opposed the plan ForwARd produced. And as I wrote earlier this week, the ForwARd recommendations were consensus-driven and generally uncontroversial. The group clearly went out of its way to find points of compromise between the diverse views on its steering committee: increase pre-K access, improve upon teacher recruitment efforts, better train administrators, boost access to health care for students and families. Many hot button topics like charter schools and choice were not mentioned at all.

The more interesting question is why a report so moderate and sensibly incrementalist bears the imprimatur of the Walton Family Foundation, whose vision for "education reform" has been anything but. Around the country, the WFF has pushed for more charter schools, expanded school choice (which often undermines traditional public education, intentionally or not) and policies that lessen the power of unions. In Arkansas this spring, a bill widely though to have originated with Jim Walton, HB 1733, would have allowed for the establishment of an "achievement school district" in which underperforming schools taken over by the state could be farmed out to charter operators (the bill was pulled by its legislative sponsor after a backlash from traditional education groups).

WFF has a clear agenda on education policy. That's just a fact. The recommendations from ForwARd — touted as the transformational vision for Arkansas schools in the decades to come — aren't at odds with that agenda, but they also don't really reflect it. Which is peculiar, to say the least. It'd be as if the Sierra Club released a master plan on environmental policy but avoided any mention of carbon emissions.

After the state board meeting on Thursday, I spoke briefly with Kathy Smith, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. Along with the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation's Sherece West-Scantlebury, she's one of the faces of the ForwARd effort. I asked Smith whether the omission of charters and similarly controversial issues from the recommendations reflected a shift in focus for the foundation.

No, she said, it does not. The WFF will continue to do its own work on education; ForwARd is a project that's explicitly distinct. And, the fact that this is a partnership with Winthrop Rockefeller meant compromise from the beginning for WFF. "Politically, the two foundations are very different," she said.

"We wanted to do something nonpartisan — what do schools need to do to improve, full stop," Smith told me. "There are lots of ways to do school improvement ... What works is engaging parents and communities ... and communities are different ... context differs."

Jared Henderson, the project manager for ForwARd, said "it really didn’t become necessary to pound the table for charters or to pound the table for traditional district schools" in crafting the recommendations. Henderson said he expects ForwARd will partner with both traditional and charter schools in the coming years.

The recommendations are a welcome compromise. Let's give the WFF credit for working with Winthrop Rockefeller and others to broaden their focus to improving all schools, rather than just pouring resources into charters. But let's also be clear that the charter debate isn't merely a peripheral aside. Both charter advocates and opponents acknowledge as much. Charters are controversial because their unlimited proliferation poses a direct threat to traditional schools, especially where districts are struggling to retain students already. That's exactly what Little Rock Superintendent Baker Kurrus was talking about in his remarks before the state board on Thursday regarding the proposed expansion of eStem and LISA Academy in the city.

On a personal level, I know some charters do great work — but I'd rather see that work done using the traditional school system, which I believe is more likely to deliver egalitarian outcomes than the market-based approach simulated by an open enrollment charter model a la New Orleans. The narrative of education reformers like WFF and so many others is that traditional schools are hopelessly "broken" and essentially need to be dismantled for spare parts. 

The alternative vision, ironically, is exactly what Kathy Smith described: "engaging parents and communities" according to "context." If public education can be improved without blowing up the existing system — and the ForwARd recommendations seem to be acknowledging that it can be — why not do it that way, rather than engaging in the radical disruption entailed by privatization? (And contra the disingenuous take of Jonathan Chait, privatization is exactly what the charter model is.)

It remains to be seen exactly what the ForwARd recommendations will look like when implemented. Henderson said the initiative is right now focused on assembling its implementation working group — a successor to the steering committee, chaired by former superintendent David Raney — and finding communities to partner with. 

"Those folks are committed to starting it at minimum by the end of the year, to get this thing off the ground," Henderson said. "We’re going to pick some number of communities at the start and really dive deep in a handful of communities in a year or two … [we'll] do this work on a classroom level, a school level, a district level."

ForwARd is still working out how many communities to work with in its initial phase. Henderson said the initiative would take an "opt-in" approach. "We want communities that see this as an opportunity … to really step out and take the lead." It won't entail "us picking someone and trying to coerce them into it," he said. "We want it to be extremely collaborative. We see the districts, with community support, as really being the authors of their own plan."

It's not yet clear what sort of financial commitment the foundations will be making to the project, either, though those details should emerge in the coming months.

Henderson emphasized that ForwARd's commitment extends years in the future, and that many components of the plan — for example, addressing teacher shortages through more aggressive recruitment of future teachers at the high school and college level — won't bear fruit for awhile. "It’s kind of easy to view [this report] as sort of the end, but really the opposite is true ... Now we go out and figure out how to implement this in the communities."

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