It was evident again yesterday that the Walton Family Foundation is a major driver of the effort to damage the Little Rock School District and, particularly, the Little Rock Education Association
They are doing to Little Rock schools what the foundation of the family fortune did to small towns all across America — hollowing them out. It’s a years-long, billion-dollar effort that favors “choice” — privately run charter schools, vouchers for private schools, taxpayer support for homeschoolers and a diminishment of the role of elected school boards. Parents know best, the Walton acolytes assert, even when the studies show little proof that the various choices beat conventional public schools. They are still searching for the magic bullet for the grinding reality of the impact of poverty on standardized test scores, the misleading standard by which “failure” is determined.
Two Walton-funded efforts were at work yesterday in Little Rock. The Reform Alliance, started with $472,000 in Walton Family Foundation money in 2015 and led by Laurie Lee, whose political consulting company is paid for “grassroots” (read Astroturf) lobbying for its school “reform” agenda, distributed a stack of fliers at the Community Advisory Board meeting last night meant to emphasize low test scores in the Little Rock School District. The papers provided private, charter and voucher options to send children. The Reform Alliance now gets state tax money to dole out to people who qualify for vouchers to go to even religious-oriented private schools if they have a qualifying need. The qualifying levels are not rigorous, some critics say, and the voucher program is growing each year. Its backers also include the National School Choice nonprofit. Lee’s lobbying work, for which her income isn’t disclosed, includes the Alliance for School Choice, Excellence in Education of Florida and the Arkansas Parents for School Choice. All smell of eau de Walton.
Little Rock teachers are also complaining of a mass e-mail from the anti-union Arkansas State Teachers Association last night warning teachers against striking. This group had a $362,000 startup grant from the Walton Family Foundation, no surprise given how notoriously anti-union Walmart has always been. ASTA also has ties to a national anti-union organization founded by like-minded billionaires. Teachers weren’t too happy to be spammed by the group. ASTA also has been peppering state newspapers with op-eds touting their anti-union views. Its leader, Michele Linch, was the lone public voice on the other side of an outpouring of public opposition to the attack on the LRSD and its union by the state Board of Education.
Teachers in Little Rock ARE talking strike. I confess misgivings. There’s not a readily attainable goal as seen in other states, such as a pay increase. Nor is there any realistic hope for a change of heart in the Asa Hutchinson- (and thus Walton-) controlled education hierarchy. As Ernie Dumas wrote this week, racial discrimination and union hatred (tied historically with racist thinking) have always been with us in Arkansas. The recent LRSD takeover was nothing more than a combination of both by the white male business ruling class, with the primary immediate goal of union wreckage.
The union’s story is not being told and a strike is seen as a way to get that message out. No doubt there is a story of refusal to operate in good faith by Education Secretary Johnny Key; a pre-ordained strategy to break the LREA without offering a hearing or even a good reason for doing it; the continued proliferation of charter schools and vouchers to further cripple the Little Rock School District; a denial of full democratic representation; unequal treatment of Little Rock against others in the state. But the Walton cutouts will be deployed in force with contrary messages and the facts won’t get in the way.
The chief anti-LRSD anti-LREA talking point, a relatively low starting pay in the Little Rock School District, is wildly misleading. The district has richly supported health insurance coverage for employees (thanks to LREA bargaining.) Cheap health insurance is a pocketbook benefit enjoyed by comparatively few Arkansas teachers. It is worth even more than an equal pay increase because the insurance premium payment is tax-free. Also, Little Rock has many veteran teachers and a declining enrollment where some districts with higher starting pay — Springdale, for example — have gone through tremendous growth surges and recruiting is vital. As a parent of two LRSD graduates, I can testify that those veteran teachers are with few exceptions worth their comparatively higher pay. The not-so-hidden message from the Waltonites is that these wonderful teachers are burned-out dead wood.
Asa and the Waltons and their agents are salivating for a walkout.
A community meeting is set from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at 1825 Pulaski Street to hear from parents and others about the potential for a strike and what will happen if that occurs. The meeting is sponsored by Grassroots Arkansas.
Dr. Anika Whitfield, co-chair of Grassroots Arkansas, happened to share with us today a letter she sent to Governor Hutchinson’s office about her inability to schedule a meeting with the governor on school issues. Interesting. Recent accounts by Cathy Frye about the inner workings of another Walton-financed charter school lobby, the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, indicated its leader has no trouble getting regular meetings with Johnny Key, the governor and other key influencers. But he has something Whitfield’s group surely doesn’t have — financial support from the Walton Family Foundation.