Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 7

The Arkansas Public School Resource Center touts itself as a “collaborative local partner” when describing how it excels in supporting rural traditional public schools and open-enrollment charter schools. 

APSRC, funded since 2008 by the Walton Family Foundation, describes the reason for its existence thusly:

The mission of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center is to support the improvement of public education by providing advocacy services on behalf of public schools with a special emphasis on charter schools and rural districts.

This is a blatant lie. 

Yes, APSRC will draft – and lobby for – legislation that will benefit the state’s open-enrollment charter schools. It also will sit idly by while Walton-backed legislation regarding private-school vouchers floats through the Legislature. I’ve watched APSRC do this twice, during the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions. 

But this “nonprofit” organization does not represent – let alone advocate for- the 85 percent of the state’s rural traditional public schools that are paying $2,500 per year to be members of APSRC. 

Nor does APSRC “represent” Arkansas’ larger school districts that are spending thousands of dollars on “technical-assistance” contracts. 

So why do 85 percent of Arkansas’ traditional public school districts remain – or become – APSRC members? 

First, the job fluidity in public education often means that a new superintendent may unknowingly inherit an APSRC membership. Meanwhile, the bookkeeper who has for years automatically renewed the district’s APSRC membership, may or may not enlighten a new superintendent because she herself inherited the membership obligations from her predecessor. In that case, she’s used to getting that yearly invoice and cutting a check. 

In other cases, rural superintendents feel pressed to join in order to feel that they’ll be kept in the loop where legislation and any ensuing Arkansas Department of Education policies are concerned. They may loathe APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith and everything that the organization stands for, but their fear of being caught unawares is greater than any sense that they should altogether shun an organization that, ultimately, is working against their best interests. 

Meanwhile, the larger districts, such as the North Little Rock School District, are willing to pay thousands of dollars for technical-assistance contracts for services specifically designed for them. Need to cut costs and pare down your central office positions? APSRC’s finance team will help you do that. Unless, of course, you are the Little Rock School District. In which case, Smith will shy away from any interest from LRSD in forming a partnership to address central office staff, finances, teaching and learning or legal issues. Twice in early 2019, team leaders told Smith that LRSD wanted to become an APSRC member. 

Smith recoiled, saying, “I’m not sure that I want to take them on.”

Because, yeah, it would be kind of awkward to take apart a school district and sell off its parts to charter or private schools while claiming to be “helping” said district. Right? But back to what APSRC uses to entice districts…

APSRC loves to offer support and funding for pilot programs and “educational materials”  promoted and offered by APSRC to its member schools. When Smith – an attorney, not an educator – evaluates pilot programs, education-related products/services or curriculum – he isn’t considering whether any of these will actually be beneficial to educators or, more importantly, students. Smith considers only what is listed below:

  • Do the Waltons support or fund those pilot programs, curriculum or other education-related products? 
  • Does Governor Asa Hutchinson want to see these pilot programs, curriculum or other education-related products marketed in Arkansas?  (Learning Blade, anyone? Virtual-reality products via Facebook’s TechStart? The Summit Learning Platform, created by a California charter school and Facebook engineers and implemented in Arkansas public school districts?) 
  • Does APSRC stand to make money off of these pilot programs, curriculum or other education-related products?

(Side note: Smith has the attention span of a crow. Ooh, shiny! Ooh, glittery! Ooh, our next moneymaker! Then, when APSRC staff and public-school educators begin pointing out potential or very real existing flaws, Smith immediately loses interest and moves on to the next shimmery object. Remember – our children, our public-school students – are his guinea pigs in an effort to please the Waltons, the governor and other potential grantors. Businesses and salespeople are making money off of OUR kids.)

Ever wonder why NWEA is promoted by APSRC? (Even though Smith will contend it’s not.) NWEA is funded by the Waltons. A document titled NWEA Research Partnerships states: 

NWEA researchers have partnered with The Walton Family Foundation on several projects to investigate the feasibility schools’ state assessment results across several states to the NWEA scale to permit cross-state comparisons of schools.

There are two other vendors from which Arkansas public-school districts can choose to measure and interpret student data. But APSRC offers only NWEA training. Also, NWEA contributes $30,000 to $35,000 each year to APSRC’s annual, statewide fall conference. If you’ll look on the conference webpage, you’ll note that NWEA is a presenting sponsor. 

At one time, APSRC backed Istation. That was before my time. Not sure what happened there. All I know is that APSRC’s storage rooms are loaded with tote bags and padfolios emblazoned with the Istation logo. But, of course, those are no longer “usable.”

Each spring, the Arkansas Public School Resource Center sends thank-you letters to its members, reminding them of all that APSRC has to offer. 

In late June or early July, the annual membership drive begins in earnest. During my three years at APSRC, I drafted four types of letters that were sent to the leaders of Arkansas public schools. 

  • A renewal letter to be sent to traditional public school districts
  • A renewal letter to be sent to open-enrollment charters
  • An invitation to become an APSRC member to be sent to non-member traditional public school districts
  • An invitation to become an APSRC member to be sent to new open-enrollment charter schools

Let me be clear – during my three years with the organization, APSRC’s finance, teaching and learning staff, and former attorney Jennifer Wells offered valuable trainings, advice and resources to APSRC members. But they did so in silos. None realized the true purpose of APSRC. None realized that the Waltons serve as the masters of their career paths.

Smith hires talented people. He hires strong-minded women. And then he freaks out over the fact that women might have valid opinions and he runs panicking to his yes-men (Tripp Walter, Ken Rich, Kendal Wells, Scott McRae and Trent Saracini) to beg for their support when “dealing with” the women on staff.

So here’s the deal – if you want to disarm APSRC, you need to follow these recommendations: 

  • Urge your rural superintendents to question the entity to whom they are pledging their loyalty.
  •  Remind your superintendents that while, yeah, the Little Rock School District and the Pine Bluff School District are the primary targets of the Waltons, other school districts across the state need to understand that they, too, will at some point be susceptible to open-enrollment charter invasions. They are not immune, even if they are APSRC members.
  • The Waltons’ goal is to privatize ALL public education. So if you’re looking at LRSD and thinking, Oh, well, LRSD schools are the targets, not my district’s schools, well – you are deluded and need to reconsider your position and your membership with APSRC.

    APSRC has one and only one goal – to do away with public education. Sure, it’ll help you open a conversion charter. It will reassure you when an open-enrollment charter wants to open a school in your district in one of your old, no-longer-used buildings. But it also will steal your buildings and your students at the first available opportunity. 

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