On her widely read blog, education reform critic Diane Ravitch today endorses a polemic by Barclay Key about the travails of the Little Rock School District.

Key is one of the plaintiffs suing the State Board of Education over its January 28 takeover of the LRSD; that suit has been stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court for the time being. A professor at UALR and colleague of former local board member Jim Ross, Key insists that the state takeover is at its core about maintaining white dominance in a majority black school district.


“Even a casual observer must admit that the state of Arkansas seems hell-bent on destroying our school system, maintaining white supremacy, and keeping our most vulnerable children in a cycle of poverty. The vultures of privatization are circling,” he writes.

Key also has plenty of harsh words for state-appointed superintendent Baker Kurrus, including plans to throw out the district’s longstanding contract with the local teachers union, the Little Rock Education Association.


I’ll avoid editorializing too heavily about this for the time being, other than to make two points. Neither is remotely original, but I think they could stand to be juxtaposed for a change.

1) Barclay Key is right to emphasize that the state takeover involved the transfer of political authority from a majority-black policymaking body to state leaders who are mostly white. In a district and a city so prominently defined by race — not just in 1957, but in all the intervening decades as well — that fact simply cannot be glossed over as merely happenstance, as just an unfortunate aside. I think it’s fair to say that most of the African American community in Little Rock doesn’t see it as an aside.


2) Key implies — and Ravitch states outright in her preface — that the LRSD takeover has been engineered by the Walton Family Foundation, a leading national proponent of choice-centric “education reform.” There’s not really any direct evidence to support this assertion. As yet, the district hasn’t moved towards privatization. When it comes to Walton influence, there are “dots to connect,” as Key puts it, but they remain just that — dots.

Though the Waltons are hugely influential in Arkansas, and though they’re surely watching LRSD closely, the politics of public schools are complex and multifaceted. There are overlapping interests between school administrators, teachers’ groups, the business world, both political parties, conservative and progressive lobbying interests, and others. That’s one reason why a major piece of Walton-sponsored legislation that was aimed at Little Rock schools, HB 1733, went down in flames last legislative session: It overreached and attracted powerful opposition. The Waltons have a policy agenda, to be sure. But do they actually control what happens in the new LRSD? To me, that’s not at all clear.