Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 3

In late 2016, the Arkansas Public School Resource Center’s department heads – aka “team leaders” – were asked to write goals for a grant application for another three-year round of Walton funding. 

This proved to be a rather confusing and frustrating process due to the fact that we were required to work in silos. Given that some departments would eventually have to rely on others in order to meet their goals, it seemed odd to discourage collaboration. 

Before the grant application was submitted on July 1, 2017, each team leader received the portion of the application that would be relevant to his/her own departments if the grant was approved. We never were permitted to see each other’s goals, measurements, outcomes, etc… (Unless, of course, we talked among ourselves.) 

So BAM! – the application is finally completed and submitted … and …

… crickets. 

Afterward, team leaders would periodically ask one another if the application had been approved. No one knew. 

Despite this, we were instructed to begin doing whatever was needed to meet our goals. In my case, this meant hiring a local firm to build a new website that would cost an estimated $50,000. I realize that’s peanuts to the Waltons and their minions, but I really didn’t feel comfortable proceeding without any idea as to whether the grant request had been approved. 

If I had any hope of getting the website done by the date required to meet my grant goal – December 31, 2017 – I would need to hire someone by August 2017. 

APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith – an attorney with a degree in business administration –  told me to move forward. 

But  when I gave him the contract documents to sign, he looked at them and asked, “What are these?”

I then explained to the expert in law and business what the documents were.

“I’m not signing these,” Smith declared, flinging the papers aside. 

I now realize that the grant hadn’t yet been approved, which meant Smith didn’t want his name on anything involving a $50,000 price tag. 

Still, he subsequently met with the website firm’s employees – on more than one occasion – and told APSRC’s other team leaders to begin doing their part to ensure that the new website would launch on schedule. 

Just as the project neared completion in late 2017, Smith asked me for copies of the contract. I pointed out that he had refused to sign it. 

This sent him into a tizzy, even though he acknowledged that he had shoved the documents aside. Smith then called in one of APSRC’s attorneys and asked him to draft a contract, which was then sent to the firm. 

Next up was an angry phone call to the firm during which Smith lectured the owner for not signing the contract ASAP. At this time, the owner was sitting at the bedside of his dying father.

“I know you’ve got a lot going on with your dad,” Smith said. “But I’m dealing with similar issues in my family and I still manage to get things done.” 

I happened to be sitting in on this call. By the time it ended, I was absolutely mortified. 

In early January 2018, the website launched – a week behind schedule, yes – but it exceeded my expectations. 

To this day, I don’t know whether the Waltons ever signed off on the grant application or not.

I asked several times in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to see the entire grant application so that I would know what I needed to do to assist other departments in meeting their goals. I never received one. Nor did I ever hear an explanation as to why not.

Why all the secrecy?  Because if you read the application in full, you’ll notice that that APSRC’s focus isn’t on all public schools. 

While the number of traditional public school districts – with or without conversion charters on their campuses – far exceeds the number of charter schools in Arkansas,  a reading of the grant application will make it clear who gets priority standing. 

Yes, 100 percent of Arkansas’ open-enrollment charters are members of APSRC. But they are far fewer in number than the state’s many rural school districts, and, really, if they want Walton support, they have no choice but to become members. Also, bear in mind that more than 85 percent of APSRC’s members are traditional public school districts that may or may not have conversion charters on their campuses. 

I finally managed to snag a copy of the entire grant application and feel compelled to share this little gem from “Request/Purpose” section: 

APSRC has long been a strong advocate for the improvement of educational policy and advocacy for issues at the core of our work which matches the Walton Family Foundation’s principles of accountability, transparency, choice, and sustainability. 

Before moving on to the next topic, I’m just going to note that a lack of transparency and accountability will one day be APSRC’s downfall. 

As a journalist, I know that people who are secretive, deceptive and paranoid are more than likely hiding something. 

And to describe Smith as secretive, deceptive and paranoid would be a dramatic understatement. 

Before the 2017 General Assembly convened, he wanted to know if any of us knew lawmakers or were friends of them. He also instructed us not to talk with them. 

Telling a former newspaper reporter and Arkansas Department of Correction legislative liaison that she is not “allowed” to talk to lawmakers was exactly the wrong thing to do. Because by the 2019 legislative session, I understood that if public school districts were going to get any sort of explanation as to what was going on, they would have to hear from the people who listen – and talk to – legislators. 

Granted, I wasn’t “allowed’ to interview lawmakers. But I sure made use of what they said during the 2019 session. 

Smith didn’t like this. By the end of the session, he had ordered me to start sending him drafts of stories before I sent them out. He started telling me to cut certain quotes from certain lawmakers and, on one occasion, told me to take my byline off of a story that he considered to be “controversial.”

“Why?” I protested.

“I’m just trying to protect you. ”

Er – from who?

At one point during the 2019 session, Senator Joyce Elliott, a member of the Education Committee who has actually worked in public schools, called a news conference. I covered it and sent a story out to our members. 

The next day, Smith asked why I had quoted Elliott.

“Well, she’s the person who called the news conference,” I said. “It would be kind of weird to not quote her.”

“Well, nobody likes her,” Smith shot back. 

Said no newspaper editor ever.

This is getting long and time is getting short – my family is still waiting on dinner – but this is what I want those of you residing in – or supporting – the Little Rock School District to know. 

Yes, APSRC has some talented folks on staff. And they do a great job of trying to provide professional development. That said, the organization’s primary role is to lobby on behalf of school “choice.” It is not a friend to public schools. It is using them to help shroud its true mission.

During my three years at APSRC, Smith always seemed to be “meeting someone at the Capitol” or “having a meeting with the governor” or “meeting with (ADE Commissioner) Johnny Key” or asking APSRC’s legal staff to draft bills that certain GOP lawmakers were willing to run. 

During the 2019 session, a lawmaker introduced a bill that would prohibit school districts from using their funding to pay for dues to membership organizations that engage in lobbying the Legislature. (Read: Membership organizations that are actually representing their members and giving them a voice.)

All sorts of membership organizations testified against the bill. I asked Smith if the proposed legislation would have an effect on APSRC.

He brushed me off. “This has nothing to do with us,” he said.

As various supporters of public education testified against the bill, Smith either left the committee room or hugged the back wall. I was both fascinated and appalled.

Supporters of a return to local control within LRSD – please hear me: 

APSRC wants your facilities. Each year, the organization’s charter director is required to court and bring in potential CMOs. These charter operators always tour the same two cities – Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Sometimes they meander down to the Delta, but they are most interested in Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Again, read the grant application. It’s a road map to Walmartized education. 

Meanwhile, APSRC is charged with propping up any failing charters. Why? Because school facilities are a prize to win and keep. Just look at how things unfolded in the Covenant Keepers/Friendship drama. (More on that in another post.) 

I’ll end by saying this: APSRC wants your buildings. It wants your students and the funding that goes with them. It does not care if its actions result in re-segregation. It will do everything it can to help the State Board do away with legit unions.

Think of it this way – open-enrollment charters are merely placeholders in the Waltons’ endeavor to dismantle public education.

  • Get the building.
  • Get the students.
  • Get the funding that follows the students.
  • Prop up the failing charters. Continue the pursuit of private-school vouchers. 
  • Rinse. Repeat. 

I will post again tomorrow evening and will share whatever is pertinent to the State Board’s decision and its repercussions. 

One thought on “Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 3

  1. I have known of Scott Smith since he worked for the ADE as staff attorney. His was the guiding hand that shut down 57 rural districts in Act 60 consolidations. I never could understand how rural superintendents could trust him.

    Like

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