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Jeff Bryant writes here about Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock was the scene of one of the crucial battles in the movement to integrate public education after the Brown decision of 1954. When city and state officials refused to integrate Central High School, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and sent in 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne to enforce the court order to admit black students.
Jeff interviews a large number of citizens of Little Rock, who tell the story of the district. For a time, it was successfully integrated, or at least parts of it were. But the resistance never went away.
At present, the Walton Family Foundation is behind a state takeover of the entire district, even though only six of its 48 schools have been declared to be “failing” schools.
State Senator Joyce Elliott said to Jeff:
“We are retreating to 1957,” Elliott believes. Only now, instead of using Jim Crow and white flight, or housing and highways, the new segregationists have other tools at their disposal. First, education funding cuts have made competition for resources more intense, with wider disparities along racial lines. Second, recent state takeover of the district has spread a sense throughout the community of having lost control of its education destiny. Parents, local officials, and community activists continuously describe change as something being done to them rather than with them. And third, an aggressive charter school sector that competes with local public schools for resources and students further divides the community.
And lurking in the background of anything having to do with Little Rock school politics is the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization connected to the family that owns the Walmart retail chain, whose headquarters is in Bentonville, Arkansas.
State Commissioner Johnny Key terminated Little Rock’s superintendent, Baker Kurrus:
The disenfranchisement of Little Rock citizens became especially apparent recently, when Commissioner Key suddenly, and without explanation, terminated the contract of Baker Kurrus, until then the superintendent of the Little Rock School District. (Key had originally appointed Kurrus himself.)
As veteran local journalist for the Arkansas Times Max Brantley explains, Kurrus was initially regarded with suspicion due to the takeover and the fact he was given the helm despite his lack of education background. But Kurrus had gradually earned the respect of locals due to his tireless outreach to the community and evenhanded treatment of oppositional points of view.
But many observers of school politics in Little Rock speculate Kurrus was terminated because he warned that charter school expansions would further strain resources in the district. In advising against expansions of these schools, Kurrus shared data showing charter school tend to under-enroll students with disabilities and low income kids.
He came to view charter schools as a “parallel school system” that would add to the district’s outlays for administration and facilities instead of putting more money directly into classroom instruction.
“It makes no sense” to expand charter schools, he is quoted as telling the local NPR outlet. “You’d never build two water systems and then see which one worked … That’s essentially what we’re doing” by expanding charters.
Kurrus also came to believe that increasing charter school enrollments would increase segregation in the city.
In a state where the Waltons have their headquarters, it is unthinkable that Little Rock have a superintendent who isn’t committed to the magic of charter schools. That contradicts the Walton philosophy. Kurrus had to go. Interestingly, one of the two charter chains (LISA) in Little Rock is identified by Sharon Higgins as Gulen charters.
A report on the academic performance of charters throughout the state of Arkansas in 2008-2009 found, “Arkansas’ charter schools do not outperform their traditional school peers,” when student demographics are taken into account. (As the report explains, “several demographic factors” – such as race, poverty, and ethnicity, – strongly correlate with lower scores on standardized tests and other measures of achievement.)
Specifically in Little Rock, the most recent comparison of charter school performance to public schools shows that a number of LRSD public schools, despite having similar or more challenging student demographics, out-perform LISA and eStem charters.
There’s also evidence charter schools add to the segregation of Little Rock. Soon after the decision to expand these schools, the LISA network blanketed the district with a direct mail marketing campaign that blatantly omitted the poor, heavily black and Latino parts of the city, according to an investigation by the Arkansas Times.xxx
In the state board’s vote to take over the district, as Brantley reports for the Times, members who voted yes had family ties to and business relationships with organizations either financed by the Walton Foundation or working in league with the Waltons to advocate for charter schools.
In another recent analysis in the Times, reporter Benjamin Hardy traces recent events back to a bill in the state legislature in 2015, HB 1733, that “originated with a Walton-affiliated education lobbyist.” That bill would have allowed an outside non-profit to operate any school district taken over by the state. The bill died in committee when unified opposition from the Little Rock delegation combined with public outcry to cause legislators to waver in their support.
So what the Waltons couldn’t accomplish with legislation like HB 1733 they are currently accomplishing by influencing official administration actions, including taking out Kurrus and expanding charters across the city.
The Waltons recently announced that they plan to spend $250 million annually to expand charter schools. They selected 17 urban districts that they would pour money into. One of them is Little Rock.