Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement

Simply put, I needed a job. 

In December 2014, I’d wrapped up a 21-year career as a newspaper reporter. I spent 15 of those years at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

After leaving the paper, I served as the public information officer and legislative liaison for the Arkansas Department of Correction. My office also responded to the phone calls, emails and letters we received daily from inmates’ families. 

One year in, I realized I just wasn’t cut out to work at a state agency. 

So my husband, kids and I briefly moved to Texas and I took a job as a SPED inclusion instructional aide in a Title I public school. I loved working with the kids, and I truly thought I’d found my calling. I hoped to get certified and become a teacher. Alas, all those California techies who have moved to the Austin area over the past couple of decades have driven up the cost of housing to a level that we could never afford on a teacher’s salary. 

So we returned to Arkansas, moved back into the home we’d bought in 2005, and I started the job hunt once again. 

In July 2016, I received a call from Scott Smith, the executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center. He told me that an old friend who once worked with me at the D-G had recommended me for a position at APSRC. An interview revealed that Smith needed not only a communications director but also someone who could oversee the planning of the annual fall conference. Also, I would cover the Arkansas State Board of Education meetings, the Legislature and anything else involving education. 

Smith seemed quite pleased with my background as a “real” journalist.

“Do you have a problem with charter schools?” he asked during the interview. 

“No?” I replied, uncertain. 

“And you think you can organize a statewide education conference?”

“Yes,” I said, more declaratively this time, thinking of the many Girl Scout events I’d helped to plan and supervise as a troop leader and member of the North Hills Service Unit.

I didn’t know a whole lot about charters at that time. I did have some qualms based on the fact that the D-G’s publisher, Walter Hussman, was an avid supporter of the charter movement. Hussman’s children all attended out-of-state private schools. It seemed to me that he wasn’t really in a position to judge what qualifies as a “good” or “equitable” public education. Also, rich people are insanely out of touch when it comes to us “regular folks.”

On the other hand, I once signed up my kids for a charter lottery because one of them was struggling at school and I thought a new environment would help. Our 2016 move to Texas served as a reset button, however, so when we returned to Arkansas, my children also returned to the traditional public school district in which they had grown up. 

But like I said, I needed a job. I also figured that a position at APSRC would allow me to remain (somewhat) in the world of public education. I thought maybe I could work toward becoming a teacher here. (I can now say that if I ever decide to pursue a teaching career, I will not be doing so in Waltonsas.) 

My first day at APSRC was on August 3, 2016. I quit nearly three years later, on June 14, 2019. That night, I sent Smith an email in which I not only announced my resignation but also shared my many reasons for quitting so abruptly. I made sure to copy in all of the female staff members so that Smith couldn’t attempt to seize the narrative. Turnover at Walton-funded nonprofits and charters is rather, well … high. And at APSRC, turnover is especially high where women are concerned.

Immediately, I felt a burden lift.

No more working in an environment steeped in secrecy and paranoia. No more placating a male boss who acted more like an abusive stalker ex-boyfriend than an actual leader. No more weird workplace silos that left “team leaders” completely in the dark as to what other departments were doing. No more legislative education committee meetings that reeked of conspiracy, deception and stale men’s suits in dire need of dry-cleaning. 

I think the turning point for me was when, at the beginning of APSRC’s annual membership drive in the spring/summer of 2019, Smith said on three occasions – in my presence – that “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” 

“Them” refers to public school districts – as in APSRC’s current member districts and potential member districts.

As a journalist, this really bothered me. My old-school B.A. in print journalism represents – to me, anyway – an oath to be accurate, fair and credible. 

I spent decades looking for facts. I believe in transparent and ethical journalistic practices.

Baffle them with bullshit?

Um, that’s a hard no. 

We’re talking about the education of Arkansas’ children. We’re talking about the teachers who work long hours for pitiful pay. We’re talking about inadequate funding, inadequate facilities and the fact that the state has taken its largest school district hostage just so that it can take it apart and reinstate segregation in the Little Rock School District.

There will be no “baffle them with bullshit” from my little corner of the universe. 

Also, covering the 2019 legislative session left me disturbed and downright angry about what is happening in public education. The 2017 General Assembly gave me serious pause. The 2019 session revealed the seamiest side of the school-”choice” movement.

In this post and those that will follow, I’m going to share the details of my three years at APSRC. Since quitting, I’ve learned that most people – even those in education – don’t realize how APSRC is structured or how it operates. Yes, it’s a nonprofit primarily funded by the Waltons. But it’s also a powerful and influential force where the governor and state Legislature are concerned. 

Also, did you know that there is an Oklahoma Public School Resource Center? I ask you to take a moment to reflect on how public education is faring there. 

Based on what I witnessed during my three years at the organization, I feel comfortable saying that  APSRC’s purported mission – providing resources and services to public schools – is just a half-hearted cover for the agency’s true purpose – to serve as a lobbyist for the Waltons and their efforts to dismantle public education. That includes strong-arming the governor, GOP lawmakers and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key. 

The fact that Smith has no scruples or shame is actually to the Waltons’ benefit. He may be a jerk who would be brought to heel by your average functioning HR department, but he’s also in it for the end game – the destruction of public schools. The fact that he belittles women and minorities is, to the Waltons, irrelevant. 

I recall one “team leader” meeting during which we discussed possible speakers for the annual fall conference and its breakout sessions. 

Smith told us about one prospect and then put our potential session leader on the speakerphone. 

After hanging up, Smith asked, “What do you think?”

One of the team leaders asked, “Is he black?”

I knew why she was asking. Arkansas educators desperately need to hear from black teachers and school administrators. Arkansas educators also wish to hire black teachers and administrators.

But Smith took her question the wrong way, based on his own apparent prejudices. 

“Yes, he’s black,” Smith said. “But – *pause* he went to Yale.” 

*insert awkward silence here*

I’ve spent the past several weeks sending out FOIA requests in an effort to learn more about the nonprofit for which I worked. We weren’t privy to a lot of the details about the organization or even our job descriptions. I spent two years asking to see the most recent Walton grant application – submitted in 2017 with my and other team leaders’ input – to no avail. I never did find out whether it was actually funded. When you work for a nonprofit, you generally would like to know what your goals, measurements and outcomes are. I really don’t think my request was unreasonable.

I am still going through documents and emails, but given what is happening this week regarding the Little Rock School District, I feel compelled to start posting now. I will link to any documents I discuss. 

So – let’s talk about APSRC and its membership. Who, exactly, are APSRC’s members? 

All Arkansas charter schools are, of course, members, even though they really don’t have any choice in the matter. If you run an open-enrollment charter school and want Walton funding, you join APSRC for $3,500 a year. I’m told that several charter directors aren’t terribly … fond … of Smith. But again, if they want continued funding and support, they have to belong to APSRC. 

The majority of APSRC’s members, however, are traditional rural school districts. 

That said, even the state’s largest urban districts also can become members via  “technical-assistance” contracts with APSRC. The North Little Rock School District is one such example. 

Members of traditional districts – many of which operate conversion charters on their campuses – pay $2,500 a year. Those with technical-assistance contracts negotiate an MOU with the fees contingent on services and manpower provided by APSRC.

More than 85 percent of Arkansas’ public school districts are members of APSRC. 

The Arkansas Public School Resource Center was founded in December 2008, thanks to a $4.5 million donation from the Walton Family Foundation. At the time, APSRC was billed as an arm of the University of Central Arkansas, headed by then-interim President Tom Courtway. 

Walton funds were sent to the UCA Foundation, where they were then administered to support APSRC at UCA. At the same time, APSRC announced that Scott Smith –  who joined ADE in 2000 as a staff attorney and went on to become the chief counsel in 2002 – would be APSRC’s executive director.

Smith is an attorney whose bachelor’s degree is in business administration. He has absolutely no experience in education. 

Of course, neither does ADE Commissioner Johnny Key. 

Per a 2008 news release drafted by UCA: “The purpose of the APSRC is to provide comprehensive services to advance and support school-choice initiatives and the implementation of high-quality open-enrollment public charter schools in Arkansas, as well as providing a variety of  support services critical to the fiscal and academic success of rural public schools in Arkansas.”

For reasons I have not yet uncovered, APSRC and the UCA Foundation severed ties in 2012. Smith then approached the Southern Arkansas University Foundation with a proposal. 

At the bottom of this post is the MOU signed off by APSRC staff and the SAU Foundation. In my next post, I will share how this MOU translated into the actual operations of the two entities. I’ll also explain why the Waltons seek state university foundation partnerships to further their school-“choice” ideology.

Just know this – the school-choice movement doesn’t target only the wealthy or the GOP. I will share in later posts how charter proponents have lured Democrats and progressives into the movement. I’ll also give you a peek into the Walton Family Foundation/APSRC grant/funding process.

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