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Behind A Bill Allowing Private Companies To Run Distressed Public Schools

A community forum held January 26th on possible state intervention.
Sarah Whites-Koditschek

State-control of the Little Rock School District or any district whose school board has been dissolved could look very different under a bill in the Arkansas Legislature. Still in its beginning stages, the legislation authorizes state-run districts to be administered by non-profit, private education companies.

The transformative effect of the measure is something that can’t be understated by its more adamant opponents. Some of which, like former school board member Jim Ross, are a familiar cast from the fallout over the state Board of Education’s 5 to 4 decision to wrest control of Little Rock public schools from the voter-approved school board.

“Right now the Walton Foundation has bought education in this city. They began on January the 28th by taking over the Little Rock School District. We said at that time, that you could watch what the Boston Consultant Group and Tony Woods and those others are going to do, and they were going to introduce a bill that allowed for charter schools to come in and takeover these districts. That’s now happened," said Ross.

Ross’s claim of influence from the Walton’s – the heirs to the founder of Wal-Mart – refers in part to a number of lobbyists he contends are working to privatize schools. Ross had Gary Newton in mind.

“The group that I represent is called Arkansas Learns and it is essentially created to be a private sector voice for education excellence,” said Newton.

Newton is part of one a few groups the bill’s primary sponsor, Representative Bruce Cozart, says he met with in the bill’s initial stages.

“I didn’t write the bill, somebody else came to me about the bill. I might not of been their first choice, I think I might have been down the line,” said Cozart.

The Republican from Hot Springs, also identified a representative of a second group with a Walton on its board, Scott Smith as being part of a team that crafted the bill.

Newton said he had no direct role in writing the bill, and he rejects arguments of a heavy-handed influence from any Walton family members.

“I would submit that there is no way to counter conspiracy theory because it’s simply not based I fact, though I understand the fear and conspiracy,” said Newton.

Though Newton does acknowledge some Walton presence behind his work.

"We are supported specifically by Jim Walton, who is on my board. Obviously we are a private organization, I don’t have those numbers in front of me but they are a strong sponsor,” said Newton.

And as for state lawmakers that represent one school district that could be affected, the Little Rock School District? Nearly all Democratic members are vocally united in opposition. Representative Clarke Tucker has said, “It creates the possibility of a huge change in the public school system without the real possibility for local input. I’m really more concerned about that than any particular policy aspect of the bill.”

However, a number of Republicans representing parts of Little Rock (Rep. Davis, Rep. Sorvillo, Rep. Lowery) have said weighing in now is premature. But speaking in Texarkana, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson revealed his support for the bill to NPR-member station KTXK.

“Well, it’s not a solution it’s simply an alternative. It’s option for the state to utilize as needed,” said Hutchinson.

The Chairman of the State Board of Education, Sam Ledbetter, speaking personally – and not for the state Board – says turning over some authority of distressed schools in the Little Rock School District was not what he envisioned when the state Board voted earlier this year.

“My thought process would have been different had this bill been pending at the time,” said Ledbetter.

He continued, saying that from his vantage point in the state Board, proceedings concerning the LRSD were not deliberated with a plan to turn over distressed schools to charters.

“This is not anything that I had in mind. It wasn’t anything that I wasn’t aware of, it hadn’t been discussed with me. It wasn’t any…you know, a lot of people I think feel like there was this grand scheme all along. If there was a grand scheme to takeover Little Rock so we could put it an achievement district, or whatever this is, nobody let me in on it,” said Ledbetter.

But at this moment, an orchestrated scheme is exactly what many in Little Rock’s black community explicitly point to. Nearly all of the city’s black state lawmakers have come out against the bill. Perhaps none more forcefully than a long-time courtroom foe of business interests in the district, Representative John Walker.

“Little Rock is now a majority-minority city and there are all kind of efforts from within the city and otherwise to diminish it as a majority-minority city,” said Walker.

Walker is clear, contending a privatized system would funnel resources and talent to affluent schools and students.

“All of this has a racial impact and it’s intentional. If Representative Cozart is able to get his way it’ll be to the detriment to the people of the state," said Walker. "Hopefully we can move beyond the state of being regarded like Mississippi. It doesn’t look like that, looks like we’re headed back toward being like Mississippi."

Jacob Kauffman is a former news anchor and reporter for KUAR.
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