Learn how the Waltons–the billionaires who own Walmart–are trying to replace public schools with privately managed charters and vouchers and to eliminate teachers’ unions. Learn how the people of Arkansas said no and defeated them in the state the Waltons think they own.
This article, by Kali Holloway, describes how the billionaires got beaten in their attempt to privatize all of Arkansas’s public schools.
This past January, nearly 60 years after Arkansas’ first desegregation efforts, the state board of education dissolved Little Rock’s democratically elected local school board, the most racially inclusive and representative of its majority-black constituency in nearly a decade. In making the decision, the state overruled widespread public outcry to take control of the largest school district in the state. Two months later, Walton Family Foundation-backed lobbyists launched a brazen legislative push to allow for broader privatization — or put bluntly, “charterization” — of schools across Arkansas. It was a move many believed revealed a carefully orchestrated effort, begun months prior, to undermine the state’s public school system, destroy its teachers unions and turn public funds into private profits.
Anyone with even a passing interest in public education knows how this story normally ends; one need only look to places like Philadelphia, where Walton dollars have helped launch an explosion of charters, or New Orleans and Detroit, where Walton funds have contributed to a system in which a majority of K-12 students now attend charter schools. Though it is not the only big-money contributor to the education reform movement (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a key player, as are countless millionaire hedge funders, investment bankers and other titans of finance), no single entity has poured more money into the push for “school choice” than the Walton Family Foundation. As a recent report from In the Public Interest and the American Federation of Teachers notes, “the foundation has kick-started more than 1,500 schools, approximately one out of four charters in the country. Over the last five years [WFF] has spent between $63 million and $73 million annually to fuel new charter openings.”
Yet despite the power and money of the Waltons, they got their backside kicked by the people of Arkansas when they tried to take over and privatize the state’s schools.
But this March, Arkansas proved the exception to the ubiquity of Walton rule. Following the introduction of House Bill 1733, which would have vastly expanded the potential for privatization of Arkansas’ public school districts, a collection of grassroots groups, urban and rural school advocates, educators, parents, and other passionate individuals committed to public education mobilized. Recognizing they were out-spent, the collective out-organized the Walton lobby, killing the bill before it even passed out of committee.The bill’s defeat was made all the more significant by the fact that it occurred in the Waltons’ own backyard. Like the family business, Walmart, the Walton dynasty’s philanthropic arm is headquartered in Arkansas. The Waltons loom so large in the state, in politics, banking, education, and of course, big-box retailing, one former Arkansas educator and public school parent told me that when HB1733 appeared, she imagined every public interaction would soon involve a Walton-backed entity. “Before long, you’ll be able to drop your kids off at a Walton charter school and then get your groceries at one of those Walmart Neighborhood Markets.”
In an era in which Walton money is, state by state and district by district, changing one of our most vital public institutions into a guaranteed investment scheme for the rich and powerful and popularizing the neoliberal notion that our schools are so irreparably broken they can only be saved by a new competition-based, market-driven education system, the defeat of HB1733 deserves an up-close look. It’s the rare story of a win that, for reasons both practical and symbolic, should get the attention of everyone who values the institution of public education.
In Arkansas, the Walton putsch began with a state takeover of the Little Rock School District, which had six schools (out of 48) in academic distress. This effectively transferred control from a majority black school board to a white state-level agency. Black voters and parents in Little Rock were left without a voice in the education of their children.
Education advocates didn’t like the swift takeover, nor the installation of non-educators in charge of the state and the district. They were:
“most disturbed by the fact that seven months after the takeover, the state still hadn’t offered a game plan for how it would repair Little Rock’s “academically distressed” schools. If the state had no clear strategy for fixing those schools, why had it bothered to take them over in the first place?
“What’s the plan to make these schools better?” Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, asked when I spoke to her. “Literally, there’s really not a plan, there’s never been a plan. Right now, you’re still hearing community members out there saying, how are you going to get those six schools out of academic distress and keep the rest out? How are we going to do that? There’s not a definite…roadmap to say how we do this.”
The Walton takeover plan started with Little Rock, but its ambitions were much larger, as revealed by the introduction of HB 1733 in the legislature:
Reportedly written by Scott Smith, head of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a nonprofit that receives $3 million in grants annually from the Walton Family Foundation, the bill would have granted the state power to take over any district deemed in academic distress in favor of an “Achievement School District.” As Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times wrote, the law would “make all school teachers and administrators fire-at-will employees without due process rights. It would destroy one of the two last remaining teacher union contracts in Arkansas. It allows for the permanent end of democratic control of a school district or those portions of it privatized. It would capture property tax millage voted by taxpayers for specific purposes, including buildings, and give them to private operators. It would allow seizure of buildings for private operators at no cost.”
In short, it looked an awful lot like charter legislation currently being passed around the country, often with the backing of Walton Family Foundation dollars. And that set off alarm bells for those on the side of Arkansas’ public education system.
Education advocates knew that this was a thinly veiled attempt to follow the pattern of New Orleans and the Achievement School District in Tennessee, which takes away all rights and voice from parents and the public.
Rural educators saw a threat in the bill to have the state takeover some or many or all of their schools.
Perhaps equally important in sparking an immediate negative response to the bill among Arkansas public education watchers was its familiarity. During the 2013 legislative session, Walton-backed forces had attempted to pass HB1040, a bill that sought to create a special, autonomous panel to handle all charter-related issues, thereby circumnavigating the state board of education. Though that legislation was defeated, it appeared to Grandon and others to be just the latest in an ongoing series of public school privatization attempts.
“This wasn’t our first dance,” Grandon said of HB1733 when we talked. “We’ve recognized the threat from privatization forces for years. In Arkansas, you can go all the way back to the late ’90s, when there was the Murphy Commission, then the Blue Ribbon Commission. All of those were financed and instigated by the same people who were pushing HB1733, and the purpose was to define public schools as failing and needing not just drastic improvement, but even a whole, ‘Let’s tear them down and rebuild them into something else, because there is no way to fix this monster.’”
Arkansans have become adept at “decoding” privatization attempts, and they decided they were not going to allow the Waltons to take over their public schools. Organizations from across the state agreed to collaborate on a nonpartisan effort to defeat the bill.
What followed was round-the-clock organizing on every possible front. Each group rallied its membership base, creating a groundswell of opposition from across the state that was impossible for House Education Committee Chair Bruce Cozart to ignore. “What you basically had was a collaboration, a combined effort from, you might say, all of the education groups in Arkansas,” Boyce Watkins, advocacy director for Arkansas School Boards Association told me. “And not just them, but the people they touch, which is a significant number of people. Now whenever you have that broad of a base contacting legislators and telling them, we don’t want this, then legislators are put in a position where they listen to that. They’re elected officials.”
The coalition of pro-public education groups was so effective that the bill was pulled on March 17, only 11 days after it was introduced.
The Waltons were beaten back, but observers expect them to return with a different strategy.
The education blogger for the Arkansas Times said:
“I also wouldn’t be surprised if that bill comes back written in such a way that it is very limited only to Little Rock, and therefore is more palatable to others within the state that may see Little Rock as a problem needing to be fixed….From my perspective, a lot of that comes from race and class and prejudices that people have that allow them to think about places like New Orleans or inner-city Memphis or Philadelphia or Little Rock as being different. That those are places with pathological problems.”
Neil Sealy said very nearly the same thing when I asked him about looking forward. “I don’t see a New Orleans scenario….But I do see a significant increase in charters. And a busting of the teachers union, a downgrade in certification for teaching, and continued [racial] segregation of the schools to parallel the segregation of the neighborhoods. And my fear is that, we got people to rise up this last session from all over the state, but is that going to happen this time around? I think HB1733 was an extreme bill. And my bet is it’s going to be not as extreme next time. And it could just target Little Rock.”
So, the Waltons will come back with their sure-fire formula for success: Limit the “crisis” to Little Rock, which won’t upset the white folks in rural areas; privatize the schools; get rid of the teachers’ union; lower standards for new teachers; foster more racial segregation.
It is an unlovely, powerless, and mean future that the Waltons have in store for the rest of us, but especially for black people and their children.