CONNECT THE DOTS: Blogger Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay assembled this to illustrate the connections in Arkansas school policy. Diane Zook is chair of state Board of Education. Gary Newton, her nephew, heads an organization with ideas about Little Rock school operation whose directors include Zook's husband, Randy. Orchestrating Change blog

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning gave a few column inches to former Little Rock school chief Baker Kurrus’ thoughtful essay on the future of the School District, but “balanced” it with several more paragraphs on the ideas submitted by Gary Newton, identified as executive director of “a parent/school choice advocacy organization.”

Kurrus, a long-time School Board member and superintendent for a year, hardly needs an introduction. You can read here the entirety of his remarks about the charter school-fractured district and its heavy population of students with immense needs.

Those who follow the school district closely also know Newton, a former chamber of commerce employee who’s moved to a well-compensated career as promoter of the agenda of the Walton Family Foundation and other wealthy Arkansans intent on upending the Little Rock School District.

The Democrat-Gazette, both in its news and editorial columns, has become a reliable platform for Newton and so-called “choice” advocates. (Still no mention in that newspaper of some groundbreaking writing by UA school reformers about the inadvisability of state takeovers of public school districts, the failure in Arkansas’s management of LRSD being a case in point.)

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But back to Newton. The D-G identifies him only as executive director of Arkansas Learns. There, he lobbies for the business community on education issues. Its directors, the newspaper did not mention, include Walter Hussman, publisher of the Democrat-Gazette, and Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Zook is the husband of Diane Zook, chair of the Arkansas Board of Education and aunt of Gary Newton. Walmart heir Jim Walton is on the board, too, along with Claiborne Deming of the Murphy Oil fortune and Bill Dillard III of the department store fortune. According to a research paper by the AEA, the organization got $115,000 in annual support from Arkansans for Educational Reform. (The figure comes from federal tax filings.)

And who might the Education Reform organization be? It would be a nonprofit that employs Newton as executive director. It received $350,000 of its support in 2017 from the Walton Family Foundation. It pays Newton more than $240,000 annually in salary and benefits.  Directors? Same as those who are directors of Arkansas Learns, including Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

This might help you understand why Newton, a lobbyist, is quoted so often on school matters in the D-G and why he gets better than equal billing with Baker Kurrus in a D-G news article about the future of the Little Rock School District. A parent advocate? Newton mostly represents his patrons, only one of whom has had a child in the LRSD. Evidence of a grassroots group of parents in support of him is scant. But with Walton billions behind him, he can play the long game, along with numerous other groups and lobbyists financed by Walton money. Newton also led creation of the Quest charter middle school in western Little Rock, with significant Walton financial help. It’s one of several charter schools the Walton foundation has supported with millions, to the detriment of the Little Rock School District.

The Walton money has immense influence with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, to whom education Secretary Johnny Key answers. The governor has also appointed all the members of the state Board of Education except long-time LR district critic Diane Zook. The legislature and its education committees are well-stocked with people who’ve enjoyed political support from the Walton network.

So, yes, what Newton has to say undeniably and unfortunately deserves attention. It also is no surprise that his ideas are bad news for believers in a unified, egalitarian and truly public education system.

Here are the worst of his ideas, as reported in D-G:

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  • He’d kill the last remaining teachers union bargaining unit in the state, the Little Rock Education Association, just as the Waltons have killed any union that tried to pop up at any of its stores.
  • He would leave the state in control of hiring and firing of the school superintendent, not an elected school board.
  • He’d leave the state in control of schools judged as failures by the dubious measure of standardized test scores that factor in only a small consideration for differences in students based on economic status. (Would the state run these schools? Or would they be farmed out to a private management corporation? I’d be willing to place a wager on the latter. The state wants to wash its hands of the sticky mess it inherited in Little Rock.)
  • In one scenario, he’d essentially divide the Little Rock School District into three autonomous districts — central, southwest and west. Forget the inefficiency this embodies. You might as well call them the black, brown (Latino) and white districts. This structure would complete his long effort to create in Northwest Little Rock a haven for a whiter, higher-income school population than you find in the majority-black and majority-poor district as a whole. This scheme would, not coincidentally, likely kill Central High School as a magnet for academic excellence. It would further segregate the Little Rock schools. (See the Quest charter school Newton created out west, much whiter than the Little Rock School District and the virtually all-black middle school closest to it. It was supposed to save children “trapped” in schools like Henderson. Only a small number wanted to,  or could, make the switch.)

The D-G quotes Newton:

The only thing better than ‘local control’ is more ‘local control,'” Newton wrote. “Instead of one board of seven or nine, we could have three boards of seven for 21 total.”

I doubt there’d be a majority black school board in the western sector. It was a black majority board that prompted the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce-led push for state takeover of the district and dissolution of the elected school board five years ago.

Will the robust public call for a unified, democratically controlled school district be heeded? Or will the public outcry at a series of meetings be ignored? Will the governor instead direct the state to adopt Gary Newton’s plan, with more dollars than people behind it?

The least the Democrat-Gazette could do is report the newspaper ownership’s alignment with Newton and the rest of the Billionaire Boys Club. Or give Kurrus equal space.