Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – PART 2

Need to catch up? Read part 1 by clicking here

After taking a job with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center in August 2016, I spent the next few months planning the annual statewide education conference that APSRC hosts each year at the Hot Springs Convention Center. 

This year’s event is set for October 23, 2019, should anyone feel a pressing need to publicly ask Governor Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key any questions about their actions regarding the Little Rock School District over the past five years.

They usually speak during the opening session. Can’t afford a ticket? No worries. You can greet Hutchinson and Key as they and other attendees enter via the Plaza Lobby, which is where the continental breakfast is served, just outside the Horner Hall Ballroom. 

There also will be an afternoon panel “discussion” during which a bevy of GOP-only lawmakers – most, if not all, of them non-educators – will be on hand to talk about the future of public education in Arkansas.) 

But I digress… 

It wasn’t until after the conference that I started focusing my attention on my other primary duty, which was to cover and report on State Board of Education meetings, interim joint-education committee meetings, ESSA meetings and so on…

This is when I learned that I was supposed to delicately spoon-feed our members when writing my news reports. 

APSRC uses Constant Contact to email its members. Recipients are divided into various groupings. Some emails are sent only to open-enrollment charter schools. Others only to traditional districts. And still others to anyone and everyone. 

This is where things get dicey. 

You see, APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith is but one of three Arkansas Walton stepchildren vying for the attention of wealthy absentee parents. 

You’ve got Smith representing APSRC, which purports to represent and serve both traditional public school districts and open-enrollment charters. 

Next up is Gary Newton of Arkansas Learns, who happens to be the nephew of Arkansas State Board of Education Chairman Diane Zook. 

And then we have The Reform Alliance, which currently uses a voucher program to “help” special-education students, foster kids, etc… attend private schools  – many of which are faith-based – and to give up any rights they have under the IDEA Act. (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)

All three organizations lobby state lawmakers on behalf of the Waltons. All three are at all times pursuing often contradictory/opposing passages of legislation. All three are always, always at odds with one another. 

The 2017 General Assembly proved to be a challenge for me. If I wrote about private-school-voucher bills, Smith fretted. I found that interesting. I mean, if APSRC truly represents and supports public schools, you’d think he would be right up front testifying before lawmakers with other membership organizations – the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, for example. Or maybe the Arkansas School Board Association. 

And you would think that I would be able to freely report on such bills, testimony and reactions. 

Nope.  Because – horrors! – I might offend Arkansas Learns and/or The Reform Alliance. In other words, I might have angered the generous benefactor of all three competing nonprofits – the Walton Family Foundation. 

Smith and Newton appeared – to me, anyway – to have honed an ability to materialize out of thin air just in time to witness how things went down in the education committees while simultaneously avoiding the offering of any testimony. 

Bear in mind, they were being monitored at all times by Kathy Smith, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. She and Newton also made it a practice to attend APSRC’s quarterly policy board meetings. 

During the 2017 session, I eventually stopped sending Smith my news reports before I emailed them to APSRC members. It was just easier and less confusing that way.

It was around that time when I started to question why Southern Arkansas University had been deemed the public entity that would provide  APSRC with HR services. SAU also kept track of our leave time and managed our benefits and retirement plans. 

I would later learn that the SAU Foundation is the recipient of Walton grant funds intended for APSRC. SAU is charged with disseminating the money and administering HR services for APSRC staff. 

When I started working for APSRC, I was given the same (presumably) packet handed to new university employees. 

So why funnel funding through state university foundations? Remember, from 2008 until 2012, the University of Central Arkansas served as APSRC’s Walton-funding dispensary.

Let’s take a look at APSRC’s staff positions to work through this one.

You’ve got Smith, the director, a former state employee (ADE). Then there’s the office manager and administrative assistant, one of whom also worked for several years at ADE.

Next up is the legal staff – chief counsel and at least one staff attorney, if not two. 

There’s also the finance staff, which is currently composed of a director (a former longtime public school superintendent) and two specialists, one of whom spent most of her career working for public schools in Arkansas.

You’ve got two tech guys, both of whom formerly worked in public schools in Arkansas. 

And then there’s the Teaching and Learning Department, where, currently, you’ll find two longtime public-school educators. Sometimes, there are more, depending on grants and funding. 

Now let’s look at the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System and who is eligible to participate. 

Click here

Back with me? OK, so there you go. Why, as a longtime Arkansas public-school employee or ADE employee, would you give up your ATRS or state retirement package to go and work for a controversial nonprofit? 

You probably wouldn’t.

 BUT … if you could hang onto what you’ve already invested in by working for an entity that would allow you to keep contributing and participating in your retirement plan – wouldn’t you find that nonprofit-employment offer a bit more palatable? 

I had no skin in the game where retirement was concerned. But I can tell you that I made more money at APSRC than I ever made working for newspapers or the Arkansas Department of Correction. And yeah, the benefits and leave time were pretty fabulous. 

Problem is, in order to enjoy all of this, you have to sell your soul.

Tomorrow – APSRC’s Walton grant application process and an explanation of its actual goals


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