Sunday, March 15, 2015

Following the money on the Walton-Hutchinson takeover of Little Rock schools

Posted By on Sun, Mar 15, 2015 at 9:19 AM

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It's not yet clear when the final House Education Committee battle will be fought on HB 1733 to allow the state to privatize any or all of a public school district judged to be in academic distress.

It's monumental legislation that would make all school teachers and administrators fire-at-will employees without due process rights.  It would destroy one of the two last remaining teacher union contracts in Arkansas. It allows for the permanent end of democratic control of a school district or those portions of it privatized. It would capture property tax millage voted by taxpayers for specific purposes, including buildings, and give them to private operators. It would allow seizure of buildings for private operators at no cost. CORRECTION:  I'd originally written that Little Rock was the last collective bargaining district in the star. Fort Smith classroom teachers still negotiate with the Fort Smith School District. An anti-union organization the Waltons fund, the Arkansas State Teachers Association, has spent a great deal of money trying to solicit members in Fort Smith, a teacher there reports. 

This bill is the work of the Walton Family Foundation. People the Walton money supports — lobbyists Gary Newton of Arkansas Learns, Scott Smith of the Arkansas Public School Research Foundation, Kathy Smith of the Walton Family Foundation and Laurie Lee of Arkansas Parents for School Choice — are the leading lobbyists. Smith has been quoted by others as saying he's the primary author (his organization gets $3 million a year from the Waltons), but it follows similar legislation introduced in other states, with poor to disastrous results (New Orleans).

(Concurrently and coincidentally, the Walton Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation are sponsoring a school study in Little Rock by the Boston Consulting Group, an outfit that has studied and recommended mass privatization in other cities.)

The goal is to make the Little Rock School District a laboratory for the pet education aims of the Waltons, who own the University of Arkansas, particularly the department ginning out propaganda in behalf of this bill. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is fully on board. He's been resisting a solid plan to put competent people in charge in Little Rock and moving on fixing the six schools on which the entire district of 48 schools was placed in academic distress. His plan is to pass a law to overcome Johnny Key's lack of a teacher certificate, master's degree and 10 years education experience and become state Education Commissioner. Key would then find a Walton-favored outfit to run the six schools at issue and be poised to take over as many others as the Waltons deem necessary. 

It's been a long battle, but money does tend to win out. The last firewall is the Democratic Party's capture of half the seats on the House Education Committee. Can the 10 Democratic members be held firm against the Walton millions? Is there a possibility that the intervention of school superintendents against the bill (because it puts every single district in similar peril of loss of local control) could peel off a vital Republican vote or two? It will be high drama when the day comes.

Meanwhile, here are some Republican votes to watch. I'd predict they wouldn't stray from the pro-Walton voting column. 

Reps. Bruce Cozart, Bill Gossage and Charlotte Douglas and Sens. Jane English and Bart Hester. Cozart is chair of House Education. English is chair of Senate Education.  Douglas and Gossage also serve on House Education.  Hester? Wherever an ignoble cause can be found, you can usually find Bart Hester.

Last August, according to lobbyist expense filings, they all got expenses-paid trips to an "education reform" meeting in Washington courtesy of Laurie Lee's School Choice client. The amount reported for each legislator's plane ticket and Capitol Hilton stay was $1,982.60.

(Yes, I checked to see if all the legislators had reported their free trips. When legislators appear in official capacities and get more than $150 worth of expenses, they are supposed to report it.  All but Douglas' statements of financial interest reported the paid trip. I've asked her about the omission, perhaps she didn't go despite Lee's report that she received the trip. UPDATE: Dpuglas said she did attend and it was an oversight she failed to report it. She said she'll amend her ethics form.)

I also found this interesting tidbit in reviewing financial statements: Gossage, an Ozark school administrator, reported more than $12,500 in income from the Arkansas Public School Research Center, the outfit funded by the Waltons that employs Smith who is pushing and reportedly helped author the privatization legislation. Gossage said the income was for "educational professional development and training."

Many tentacles. Lots of money.

One final comment. This item was in process before I came across John Brummett's column this morning in the newspaper owned by Little Rock school takeover champion Walter Hussman, redolent of Hutchinson administration spin that the governor would make a "solomonic" move by beginning with a partial privatization of Little Rock schools. This is in keeping with the meme the Hutchinson camp is pushing about his supposed "moderation."

Consider King Solomon Hutchinson's income tax cut — which omitted the poorest Arkansas workers but also took back a tiny bit of a capital gains tax cut. The fix is in to restore the capital gains tax cut in the final days of the session. Don't hold your breath for a veto. The moderate Asa didn't like the gay discrimination bill Bart Hester passed either — supposedly — but he nonetheless waved it into law. King Solomon also said there'd be no more GIF pork to pass around, but I heard Republican after Republican talking in committee last week about how they'd meet their plans for this or that with their expected share of GIF money. King Solomon also has expressed concern about the Rep. Justin Harris controversy but has yet to do anything about his  Republican colleague's extraordinary pressure on DHS and other problems illustrated about DHS in the process. And don't get me started again about appointees.

If you think Johnny Key, who used Nick Wilson-style special language chicanery to increase the virtual charter school enrollment from 500 to 3,000 will stop at six Little Rock schools in the privatization scheme, I've got a Little Rock school to sell you for $1, subject to Walton approval.

The simmering pot full of Little Rock School District frogs (otherwise knowns as voters, taxpayers, parents, students and teachers) will soon be fully cooked, with no life left to jump out.

Although Judge Wendell Griffen just might have something to say about that.

UPDATE: Gary Newton labors on Sunday, too.

He's putting out word to bring PTA presidents to a meeting at 2 p.m. today at Townley Pool and Spa to inform them of the "merits" of HB 1733.

Please remember Newton is the guy who claims no connection to this bill and dismisses as conspiracy nonsense the notion that the Waltons are behind it. Why lie? Why not own it?

PS — Barclay Key, who's working against HB 1733, wants to be sure readers know that David and Amie Townley, who provided a place for the meeting, oppose the bill and wanted to speak to Newton about it in person. She has contributed a comment in the reader thread. Key says "they are doing good work to stop this bill."

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