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With ForwARd Arkansas, the Walton Family Foundation tones down its policy agenda 

Report contains no mention of charter schools, choice or vouchers.

SEEKING COMPROMISE: (From left) Sherece West-Scantlebury, Jared Henderson and Kathy Smith present recommendations to the state Board of Education. - BENJAMIN HARDY
  • Benjamin Hardy
  • SEEKING COMPROMISE: (From left) Sherece West-Scantlebury, Jared Henderson and Kathy Smith present recommendations to the state Board of Education.

Last fall, when a new education initiative called ForwARd Arkansas was endorsed by the state Board of Education, many in the public school world reacted with suspicion, if not outright hostility. That's because one of the two philanthropic organizations behind ForwARd is the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable behemoth that's positioned itself as a national advocate for charter schools, vouchers and other choice-based programs intended to radically remake public education. True, WFF's partner in ForwARd was the moderately progressive Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, but some advocates of traditional public schools still heard sinister overtones in the cheery yet vague promises of ForwARd to create "A New Vision for Arkansas Education." Would the group's recommendations be a Trojan horse for the reformist policies championed by WFF in places like New Orleans, a city whose public schools have been entirely converted into charters?

No, it turns out. ForwARd Arkansas's recommendations, which were released to the state board this month, contain no mention whatsoever of charter schools, choice or vouchers. Instead, ForwARd focuses on areas of relative consensus: increased investment in prekindergarten programs, with priority given to low-income students; making sure kids are well-fed (by expanding breakfast programs) and healthy (by improving access to health care for their families); building "workforce education pathways" for students to learn marketable skills; building governance capacity at the district level and training and evaluating principals at the building level, and recruiting more and better teachers throughout the state, beginning in high school.

A few items do raise eyebrows. The report suggests moving school board election dates to coincide with general elections, a change that would make it harder for districts to pass millages necessary to fund facilities improvements. It also called for Arkansas to create a "pre-academic distress" designation for schools in the bottom 5 percent of performance statewide, potentially expediting their takeover by the state. But taken as a whole, the recommendations are reasonable.

The question is why a report that's so moderate and sensibly incrementalist bears the imprimatur of the Walton Family Foundation, whose vision for "education reform" has been anything but. Love it or hate it, the WFF has a clear agenda on education policy. The recommendations from ForwARd — touted as the transformational vision for Arkansas schools in the decades to come — aren't necessarily at odds with that reformist agenda, but they also don't really reflect it. It would be as if the Sierra Club released a master plan on environmental policy but carefully avoided any mention of carbon emissions.

Kathy Smith, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation, said the omission of charters and similarly controversial issues do not reflect a shift in focus for the foundation. The WFF will continue to do its own work on education issues; ForwARd is a project that's explicitly distinct.

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

Sherece West-Scantlebury, CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, emphasized the inclusiveness of ForwARd's process. To craft the recommendations, the foundations assembled a politically diverse steering committee, from state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), a former teacher and staunch supporter of traditional public schools; to Scott Shirey, founder and executive director of the KIPP charter network in the Arkansas Delta. ForwARd also took pains to solicit community input around the state over the past year.

"The ForwARd vision represents the consensus of the Steering Committee as informed by 8,500 people surveyed, 500 Arkansans we talked to in person and hundreds of hours of research on best practices and Arkansas-based success stories," West-Scantlebury wrote in an email to the Arkansas Times. "The ForwARd vision isn't about rehashing old arguments. It is a new vision for Arkansas education that requires us all to put the best interest of students first and seek comprehensive solutions."

The Walton Family Foundation should be credited for broadening its focus to improve all schools and seeking compromise. But at the same time, the charter debate isn't peripheral. Charter schools are controversial exactly because their unlimited proliferation poses a direct threat to traditional schools, especially where districts are struggling to retain students already. For a prime example, look to the Little Rock School District, where growing charter networks such as eStem and LISA Academy compete with LRSD, which serves far larger percentages of children from low-income homes, with learning disabilities or who speak English as a second language. Education reformers, including the WFF and its allies, often describe low-performing, urban districts as hopelessly broken — thus, the need for an alternative, privately run charter system. In the state legislature this spring, a bill widely thought to have originated with the WFF (or perhaps Jim Walton directly) 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.

Yet, by avoiding mention of the charter issue, ForwARd's prescriptions would seem to imply that traditional schools can be fixed through dedicated community engagement. And if that's the case, why engage in the radical disruption entailed by privatization?

It remains to be seen exactly what the ForwARd recommendations will look like when implemented. Jared Henderson, the project manager for ForwARd, said the initiative is now focused on assembling an "implementation working group" — a successor to the steering committee — and identifying 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 ... dive deep in a handful of communities in a year or two." Henderson said the initiative would take an "opt-in" approach in its partnerships. 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."

Smith and West-Scantlebury said they couldn't yet comment on what sort of financial resources the foundations will be devoting to the project in the months ahead, but reiterated their organizations' commitment to ForwARd over the long haul. Those details, and others, should emerge in the coming months.

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