The Walton Family Foundation push to destroy the Little Rock School District with charter schools led to Baker Kurrus’ firing as school superintendent last week, but it also stirred community backlash evident at Saturday’s Capitol rally that provides at least a spark of hope.

An organized effort to preserve conventional public schools that (must) take all comers can have impact.

Here’s reporting from Chicago.  It says the Walton Foundation is stopping funding of charter schools there, a city where it spent more money than anywhere else (and they support one in four of every charter school created in the country). 

But now, a deep and seemingly intractable financial crisis, an unprecedented wave of public backlash against privately run charters and the district’s own slowdown of charter expansion have made Walton shift its course.

… Walton’s withdrawal is just one of the signs that Chicago’s once-rapidly expanding charter sector is facing a harder sell in an increasingly hostile political climate.

Just last week, two reports—one from Generation All, an initiative of The Chicago Community Trust, and another from a district working group—came out calling for more support for neighborhood high schools, which have lost enrollment to charters.

Walton’s critics, who view charters as an instrument to bust unions and destabilize traditional public schools, say Walton’s decision is a small victory.

“It shows that resistance works. There’s very active resistance there, not just from the union but from parents on the ground,” says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education history at New York University and a one-time proponent of education reform, in which charters play a central role. “What [the funders] are seeing is that the community is saying, ‘We don’t want you. Go away. You’re outside people and you don’t know our community.’ 

The political climate as measured by control of elected offices is not only not hostile to Walton money in Arkansas, it is controlled by it. That’s why Kurrus is gone. He compiled a massive dossier on the negative impact of charter schools in Little Rock. Education Commissioner Johnny Key needed no call from the home office in Bentonville to know that Kurrus had gone too far and had to go.

Incoming superintendent Michael Poore of Bentonville provided comments to  only one news source last week — the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It’s a champion editorially of charter schools and has long been harshly critical of the Little Rock School District, particularly the elected school board that was ousted by the state.  The Poore interview won placement in the big circulation Sunday newspaper, stepping on news of the Capitol rally of critics of state control of the district and Kurrus’ firing.

Poore says he’s hard to “box in” on charter schools — even as he expressed support for them in a Colorado district where he once worked. It is a small step from district charter schools to turning over select schools to private management corporations.

I wish Poore had been asked directly the question of whether he’d compile information on the damaging impact of charter schools in the district and independently present it to the state Board of Education. Charter schools are an insignificant factor in Bentonville. There are few black people in Bentonville and far fewer children in poverty than in Little Rock. These factors drive establishment of many charter schools.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is desperately hoping to entice Baker Kurrus into taking a symbolic role in the district in the future to stop his political bleeding. Kurrus has already said the obvious in an appearance with Education Commissioner Johnny Key — there can’t be two leaders of a school district. I’d be surprised if Kurrus chose to be a foil for the Walton agenda after his rude treatment. But … He cares so much about the schools and the kids, he might.  I doubt he’d accept a gag order, however.

Which reminds me: Have any of the journalists given access to the governor, Key or Poore bothered to ask them their opinion on what Kurrus told the state Board of Education about the ill effects of expanding existing charter schools into full-blown, large school districts?  Did immediate supervisor Key, who fired Kurrus, approve of his remarks? He is the School Board, after all.

Key’s record is clear. He’s author of the segregation-promoting school choice legislation, author of tricky special language that expanded the virtual charter school enrollment cap 10-fold, supporter of the  2015 legislation pushed by Walton lobbyists to allow private corporations to run the Little Rock School District. The Hutchinson administration also has put $15 million aside this year for charter school construction in a tight budget year. I never could get a response from legislative leaders if that Walton money would have been held harmless had the Medicaid expansion not been approved and broad spending cuts been required. Count me skeptical.

Hostility to charters? At the Capitol yesterday, yes. In the governor’s office? Or the education commissioner’s office? Or the offices of the 800-pound gorilla of education policy in Arkansas? I’m afraid not.