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A charter school fix 

click to enlarge FOLLOWING THE WALTON AGENDA: Gov. Hutchinson and Johnny Key.
  • FOLLOWING THE WALTON AGENDA: Gov. Hutchinson and Johnny Key.

Events last week provided still more evidence that the Walton education agenda is being imposed on the state of Arkansas through the Hutchinson administration and its unaccredited education commissioner, Johnny Key.

Key insists Baker Kurrus' opposition to charter school expansion had nothing to do with his firing as Little Rock school superintendent and replacement by Mike Poore, superintendent in Bentonville. Already, we had contrary evidence. Kurrus spoke against the eStem and LISA Academy expansions March 31. Barely six days later, Kurrus had been fired/non-renewed effective June 30 and Poore had been offered the job. The charter expansions were approved. Key has publicly said that he disagreed with Kurrus on charter schools. He could do no other. He was a staunch backer of the Walton Family Foundation's charter and school "choice" legislation when he was a state senator.

The smell got much riper last week.

The stench came from Little Rock Preparatory Academy. It has survived as a charter school despite abysmal performance. Its elementary school students score far lower than EVERY elementary in the Little Rock School District, according to the latest school report card. Its middle school students score lower than every Little Rock middle school, save one that is a single point behind on a 200-point scale.

Now Johnny Key is waiving the rules so that Little Rock Prep can have a hurryup expansion, with apparent financial backing from the Walton fortune. The back story:

Last August, a corporation that uses the same post office box as Walton Enterprises, KLS LLC, bought the former Lutheran High building on West Markham, just up from ritzy Park Plaza, for $4.25 million. In September, a lawyer incorporated a nonprofit called Arkansas Charter Partners. It is a nonprofit affiliated with the national charter school management corporation, Exalt, which draws payment in state money for operating Little Rock Prep.

In March, East Harding Construction started work on the old Lutheran campus, still owned by the Bentonville LLC, for Arkansas Charter Partners. The construction company is headed by Van Tilbury, a former Little Rock Chamber of Commerce chairman who joined other chamber members in urging state takeover of the Little Rock School District. He acknowledged to me that he was working on a school project not yet approved.

The Waltons backed the Little Rock district takeover because they had a plan to turn over the entire district to private school management companies, but their legislation failed. They continue to move piecemeal. Kathy Smith is the head program officer for the Waltons' school takeover agenda in Arkansas. The same KLS LLC providing a building for Little Rock Prep bought a former school facility in North Little Rock for future charter school use. Kathy Smith signed those papers.

April 7, the day after completion of the Kurrus ouster, Little Rock Prep asked Johnny Key for the waiver of charter school rules. Rather than wait until October, it asked approval now of a 120-seat expansion and move to a new facility at — of course — the old Lutheran campus. It says it wants to serve its low-income minority students better — by moving from amid many of them in Southwest Little Rock to an affluent part of town. Note: It will also get its middle school much closer to Little Rock elementaries — Brady and Williams, for example — serving lots of poor black kids and doing quite well by them, with scores exceeding those at Little Rock Prep. They could feed and boost Little Rock Prep's middle school.

Little Rock Prep will get its expedited hearing May 18. You do the math: Walton investment; Tilbury's pre-approval contract; Key's influence on his department staff; the Walton influence through Hutchinson appointees and Walton friends on the state board of education. It adds up to a done deal.

If so, it means Johnny Key and the Hutchinson administration will reward a failing charter school while punishing progress in the Little Rock district by firing a successful superintendent. The Waltons will land another blow to the Little Rock School District by siphoning off more students and maybe even make a tidy return on their investment in the building (11 percent of Little Rock Prep's state revenue will go to lease payments.)

Remember this when Walton-paid mouthpieces like Gary Newton of the Arkansas Learns charter school lobby tout "school choice." Here, it means an inefficient duplicative public investment in an inferior product. It makes sense only if you understand the aim — the end of a publicly governed Little Rock School District, at least in the conventional sense. Some semblance of the district must remain to educate the disabled, non-English-speakers, troublemakers and homeless and lost children the charter schools don't want.

UPDATE ON THURSDAY, MAY 19: At a state Board of Education meeting marked by heated criticism of a double standard for charter schools and the Little Rock schools, Board member Dianne Zook (a charter school advocate and aunt of a Walton-employed charter school lobbyist) dropped the news that Little Rock Prep would withdraw its expansion request for the time being, but still wants to move to the new campus. It was a transparent public relations move to dampen the outcry over the special handling. If there is not a double standard, the board should not approve a move for a school that hasn't demonstrated justification for its continued existence.

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