Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports today on Governor Hutchinson’s quiet release of $3 million to almost double a state school voucher fund, an action that failed in the recent legislative session.

Hutchinson once opposed school vouchers. No more. He’s enlisted in the billion-dollar campaign by the Walton family and other millionaires to wreck egalitarian public schools with school vouchers for unaccountable private school education; quasi-private schools known as charter schools that get public money but far less public oversight; race-motivated transfers between Arkansas public school districts, and an assault on teachers in general, particularly those who are members of a professional organization. (There are NO “teachers unions” functioning in Arkansas. They were already dead when the legislature essentially made them illegal.)

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The legislature, with particular resistance in the House, refused in the recent fiscal session to almost double the voucher program in an end-around run at an additional $3 million through an amendment to the Education Department budget. It was defeated repeatedly.

Not to worry. Autocratic Asa took care of it. The governor gave $3 million for private school vouchers from federal emergency funds under his control. The Reform Alliance, the nonprofit set up by the Walton Family Foundation to pass out voucher money (the better to avoid that pesky FOI law) Tweeted on March 23 that it had gotten the money on March 17. The governor confirmed the allocation when asked about it Monday, 11 days after the fact. Why not brag about if this is such a great idea?

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Here’s the problem and it will only grow. Money spent on private schools ultimately is money not spent on public schools, which operate under standards for courses, facilities, testing and teacher certification. There is no accountability for private schools. And too little for the charter schools, particularly the so-called online charter schools that were expanded by thousands of seats through legislative trickery engineered on behalf of the profit-making virtual operators by then-Sen. Johnny Key, now the “choice”-compliant head of the Education Department.

A stout defender of public schools who won’t be returning to the legislature in 2023 tells me he fears the end of public education as we know it is near. The Waltons had the money to play the long game. Occasional defeats — the charterization of the Little Rock School District, for example; the voucher expansion earlier this year — are just bumps in their yellow bullion road. See charters, particularly. The cap on charter schools became meaningless when a single charter was allowed to include multiple schools in cities all over Arkansas (LISA, eStem, Haas Hall and more).

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The voucher movement is gaining ground and the next push will be to open it to all. In theory, the program now is ONLY for students with individual education plans (a qualification that spans a range of issues, some more profound than others) foster children and children of the military. It will grow. The Walton/Koch movement is busy selling the idea that parents should be able to take their $7,400 a year in state money and take it wherever they want. lt matters not if the school is worth a damn. I’d like to take “my” money and give it to Planned Parenthood, not bogus anti-abortion “counseling” operations, while we’re at freedom of choice.

I got a tip the other day about problems at a school highly touted in the failed legislative voucher expansion debate as providing first-class instruction for children with dyslexia. Its Board meeting minutes revealed a school in operational disarray and reported a significant change in school operations. Among the comments: “After reviewing the budget and other accounting records it was evident that the school was not ready to close the doors, however, this model was not sustainable for the long term.”

The state has no say over such non-sustainable situations. It just sends the money. Now twice as much, thanks to Governor Hutchinson.

This one-time federal money will become permanent money in 2023. And that will be just the beginning of the heightened assault on public education. This will include so-called “tuition tax credits,” just a euphemism for school vouchers in which wealthy people may choose to send THEIR tax payments to private schools rather than to public schools and other public services.

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