A coalition of education advocates announced today their firm opposition to HB1733, which would allow the state to privatize public school districts declared in academic distress.
The bill allows expropriation of buildings and tax revenue; cancellation of union contracts; end of the fair dismissal law for entire school districts, and the potential for a permanent end to school boards, whether the state Education commissioner chooses to privatize some or all of a district’s schools.
The Little Rock School District, with 48 schools, but only six officially in academic distress, could be subject in its entirety to the bill, which is being carried by paid lobbyists for the Walton Family Foundation and is supported by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He intends for former Sen. Johnny Key, former operator of a religion-themed nursery school and an ally of the Waltons, to take over the Education commissioner’s job as soon as a law is passed invalidating current job requirements that Key doesn’t meet. He’s expected to gradually privatize the Little Rock School District once installed, if a pending court case doesn’t upend the takeover.
The opponents include the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators. The law imperils local control in all of the state’s some 275 school districts.
Richard Abernathy, director of the association said the idea had failed elsewhere. From a release:
“New Orleans, Philadelphia, Memphis and a few other communities have tried educational experiments almost identical to HB1733,” he said. “An objective analysis of these experiments shows that student performance did not improve, and in some cases it declined.”
In New Orleans, where an HB1733 experiment is underway, the results are alarming. After 10 years and billions of dollars spent, the Recovery School District is still ranked worse than 83% of Louisiana schools. While the experiments have failed to improve student learning, other problems, such as loss of local control, less civic engagement and growing inequality have resulted.
“None of our organizations are opposed to accountable charter schools,” said said Regina Von Tungeln, a mother of three children in the Watson Chapel School District and Co-Chair of the Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign. “However, HB1733 uses charter schools to replace whole school districts, but with none of the standards, safeguards and requirements that traditional public schools meet.”
Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said charter management companies could cherry pick students and leave special education and other more challenging students to fend for themselves at schools with fewer resources. In Little Rock, for example, a charter operator that took over one of the six schools likely would create an open enrollment charter with many rules to apply to parents. The likelihood that the operator would have the same group of under-performing kids, as opposed to a new student body with motivated parents, is unlikely.
The nine groups: Arkansas Association of Education Administrators; Arkansas Education Association; Arkansas School Boards Association; Rural Community Alliance; Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign; Arkansas Citizens First Congress; Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families; Arkansas Parent Teacher Association; Arkansas Rural Education Association.
The letter argues that charter schools were supposed to be innovative laboratories, not a simple takeover tool with a way around worthwhile state rules. The letter notes that research by CREDO at Stanford, an organization often cited by reformers, shows Arkansas charters generally not performing as well as traditional public schools. New Orleans is a particularly dark spot, with its total charterization. At three high schools of the “recovery” school district, not a single student is qualfied for the two-year state college scholarship that requires a 17 ACT. Not one student is qualified for the four-year scholarship, which takes a 20 ACT. (Sen. Jimmy Hickey wants to up the requirement for an Arkansas lottery scholarship to a 22 ACT score.)
The letter says Arkansas scores have improved significantly because the state has coalesced around “research proven strategies.
The bill is on the agenda of the House Education Committee. It is split evenly, 10-10, between Democrats who mostly oppose the bill and Republicans who support it.