More than 200 people gathered on a rainy night at Calvary Baptist Church in the Heights to hear speakers urge defeat of Rep. Bruce Cozart’s HB 1733 to allow the state to take over any school or school district judged in academic distress and turn it over to a private charter school operator.
Legislators, teachers, parents and other urged the crowd to call the House Education Committee, which could prove the last hurrah for conventional public schools in Little Rocik.
Cozart chairs the Education Committee. His bill is the work of Walton Family Foundation-funded lobbyists and has the apparent backing of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who’s promised wealthy Arkansans such as the Waltons and Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman who back the so-called “reform” movement, to do earthshaking things, beginning in Little Rock
The stage was set by the 5-4 vote by the state Board of Education to take over the Little Rock School District and oust its School Board. That put the state Education commissioner in charge. Work is underway on plans to fix the six schools in distress (of 48) and to deal with pressing financial issues. But the job soon will fall to former Sen. Johnny Key, who is the governor’s selection for commissioner though he doesn’t meet the law’s current education and experience qualification for the job. The law will be changed.
Once on Board, Key could be expected to move dramatically against the conventional Little Rock School District, but he needs Cozart”s bill to waive the fair dismissal law, oust the teachers union and otherwise free the schools for private operation. These companies could pick and choose the best schools to operate. They could also choose to reconstitute any failing schools with new students. Similar plans in New Orleans, Memphis and Philadelphia have had mixed results, charitably put. The New Orleans schools, after 10 years of charter operation, are still the worst in the state. Little Rock is far better off than New Orleans schools, for all its ills.
The Education Committee is split 10-10 in partisan membership with a Republican chair. It takes 11 votes to get a bill out of committee. So speakers such as Rep. Fred Love urged the crowd to call Democrats on the committee repeatedly to hold them firm.
Rep. Clarke Tucker urged the audience to talk to legislators about the bill’s potential to affect any school or school district in the state. It is not only a Little Rock bill, though of the four districts that currently could be affected, it has the most to lose.
Speakers noted that, once a school was privatized, the law provided no sunset. They could be kept a charter forever, without any return to local control. Speaker after speaker characterized the taking of Little Rock buildings for $1 a year and the capture of the local property millage as taxation without representation.
It’s a bad time for education, Rep. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff noted. The House defeated a bill to require accountability in lotteries for selecting charter school admissions. The Republican House voted for secrecy, which allows protection for gaming the system. The House also voted to end testing for home school students. It defeated a bill to require community input in the accreditation process. Two Walton-financed lobbyists — Gary Newton at Arkansss Learns and Scott Smith of the Public School Research Center — are fighting Tucker’s bill to require FOI coverage for contracts with private third parties to evaluate or run school districts. The school district consolidation law was gutted in the name of local control for tiny school districts, even as the Hutchinson administrate was moving to seize local control from the 25,000-student Little Rock School District.
State Rep. Wariwick Sabin said Cozart acknowledged criticisms raised since the bill was reported here Saturday morning. “He said he wouldn’t run it right away” Sabin said. “If necessary, he’ll pull it down for study.”
But Love said he’d spoken to Cozart shortly before the meeting and he said he had no intention of pulling the bill down. Trust Cozart? Iffy proposition these days. Even Sabin said best to keep your guard up.
A rally is scheduled at the Capitol at 1 p.m. Tuesday, said Bill Kopsky of the Citizens First Congress. He urged the audience to tell legislators that — while results were mixed at best on charter school takeover of school districts — the research showed clearly things that do help: Pre-K education, well-trained teachers, health and nutrition. He said they should urge attention to those issues, which are getting none, while a push is on for privatizing public school districts. Pre-K hasn’t had a budget increase in years and Hutchinson has refused so far to do anything about it, though every other aspect of government has gotten a small increase and Hutchinson is about to get back all of the capital gains tax cut rollback he gave up in return for Demoratic support for the 75 percent vote he needed for his income tax bill. “Sly move,” one legislator noted.
Rep. John Walker, the civil rights veteran, said the bill was nothing but part of a long process to eliminate unions and desegregate schools. He spoke of black people’s struggle for equality and their failure to advance by being told they weren’t qualified. Then he mentioned Hutchinson’s bill to remove qualifications to be education commissioner. “Now we’re told that qualifications don’t matter. Anyone can run the state Education Department.”
Sen. David Johnson, a parent of Little Rock students, said he was committed to the battle, as did Rep. Charles Blake, who noted he’d once helped establish a charter school. But he said, “This is not a good bill.”
Tucker urged support for his bill to open third-party contractors’ work to public inspection. “If they’re doing public business, the public has a right to know.”
Sen. Linda Chesterfield did a little preaching, to some encouraging shouts from the audience. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said, echoing the famous civil rights cry of Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She said the legislature in general showed eroding support for public education, with a pullback from professional development for teachers and from course rigor and now a bill to allow an unqualified superintendent. She lamented that the Pulaski district remained in state control 5 years after its state takeover. She said Pulaski and Helena, both with significant fund balances, were being held in fiscal distress status so the state wouldn’t lose control. “They’ve decided they know what’s best for us,” she said, adding, “This is about a Walton and Co. takeover of public education.”
Several other speakers mentioned the Walton billions and their influence on school policy. Critics see their interest as aimed at creating profiit-making enterprises in education and also continuing to turn out poorly trained workers with no hopes for employment beyond a low-wage Walmart job.
Chesterfield lambasted Sen. Jimmy Hickey’s bill to require a 19 ACT score to get a lottery scholarship. She said poor students can’t afford to take the test repeatedly to improve scores and that the new cutoff will disqualify poor, black and Latino students. “It’ mean’s their future is gone” she said. “That’s not right.”