Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 8

Tonight, I am sharing a Who’s Who in the Arkansas education “reform” movement. 

First – a reminder: The end game is not charterization. It is privatization. Charter schools are merely a bridge. Look at them as place-holders.

The Arkansas Public School Resource Center, where I worked for three years as the communications director, purports to support both open-enrollment charter schools and rural traditional school districts. In actuality, APSRC is one of many Arkansas-based and Walton-funded lobbying entities.  Some of these organizations specialize in charters. Others exist to promote private schools and vouchers. One seeks to convince teachers that they don’t need to belong to unions. A couple others promote the alleged glories of school “choice.” 

Here’s a list of such organizations: 

Remember, Arkansas is not the only state being targeted by American billionaires who seek to do away with public education and those pesky teachers’ unions. The Waltons are among those leading the charge. Curious, isn’t it, that the Waltons and other billionaires who are supposedly concerned about education haven’t donated a dime to public schools. Instead, they’re focused on supporting charters and private schools. 

So let’s meet the Arkansas players –

Starting with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, we’re going to look at its three boards: the Policy Board, the Charter School Advisory Board and the Rural Districts Advisory Board. The boards meet quarterly. 

Before each meeting, APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith requires that his loyal assistant (and resident spy) – office manager Lisa Walters – draft agendas for the three meetings. 

Once those agendas are in play, APSRC team leaders are required to attend at least two executive meetings to go over what will be said – or not said – during each meeting. 

Per the APSRC website, upon which I imported and/or drafted content, the Policy Board “is responsible for general oversight and policy development for APSRC. The members of the Policy Board represent a wealth of experience and wisdom in the areas of public education, business, and governmental policy-making.”

A “wealth of experience and wisdom” in matters pertaining to public education? Um. No.

The officers may have changed since I left APSRC, but according to the organization’s website, the players to whom APSRC staff reported remain the same: 

APSRC Policy Board

Chairman Mike Wilson, attorney and former Democratic state legislator (Yes, many a Democrat has succumbed to the lure of education “reform” – more on that in another post.) Wilson also currently serves as a member of the Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel. Conflict of interest maybe?

Vice-chair Ernest Cunningham, yet another former Democratic state lawmaker who at one point served as the Speaker of the House. Cunningham now works for The Perimeter Group, a lobbyist organization.

Secretary/Treasurer Diane Tatum, an Entergy retiree

Board member Dr. Trey Berry, President, Southern Arkansas University (SAU serves as APSRC’s grant-holder of Walton funding and also as APSRC’s HR department.)

Board member Dr. Fitz Hill, Arkansas State Board of Education member, appointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson in July 2016; Director, Arkansas Baptist College Foundation; Director, Scott Ford Entrepreneurship and Community Development Center

Board member Senator Jim Hendren, Arkansas Senator Pro Tempore who serves on the Senate Education Committee

Board member Randy Lawson, Chairman and CEO of Lawco Energy Group

Board member Arkansas Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd 

Board member Sherman Tate,  President and CEO of Tate & Associates, a sports consulting firm

Board member Jim Walton, Walmart heir, Chairman and CEO of Arvest Bank (Intent on carrying out his deceased brother John’s desire to charterize and privatize America’s school systems.)

Randy Zook, President, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce (Married to pro-charter and embarrassingly uninformed Arkansas State Board Chairman Diane Zook.)

Board member Rob McGill, Ex-officio, Charter Advisory Board; Executive Director, Academics Plus Charter School

Board member Daryl Blaxton, Ex-officio, Rural Advisory Board; Superintendent, Pocahontas School District

Charter School Advisory Board

  • John Bacon, eStem Charter School
  • Linda Dawson, SIATech, Inc.
  • Steven Gast, Responsive Education Arkansas
  • Fatih Bogrek, LISA Academy
  • Mary Ley, Arkansas Arts Academy
  • Rob McGill (Chair), Academics Plus
  • Scott Shirey, KIPP Delta Preparatory School
  • Phillis Anderson, ScholarMade
  • Khori Whittaker, Lighthouse Academies
  • Joe Harris, Friendship Aspire 

Rural Districts Advisory Board

  • Billy Adams, Lakeside School District
  • Dr. Debbie Atwell, Mountainburg School District
  • Cody Beene, Nemo Vista School District
  • Sally Bennett, Rivercrest School District
  • Daryl Blaxton (Chair), Pocahontas School District
  • Dan Breshears, Centerpoint School District
  • Angie Bryant, Genoa Central School District
  • Joe Couch, Bergman School Districts
  • Kelvin Gragg, Dumas School District
  • Douglas Graham, Nashville School District
  • Bobby Hart, Hope School District
  • Rick Neal, Pea Ridge School District
  • Richard Page, Gravette School District
  • Roger Rich, Southside School District (Batesville)
  • David Rolland, Pangburn School District
  • Danny Sample, Harrisburg School District
  • Skipper Ward, Magnolia School District
  • Gary Williams, Crossett School District

Because of their involvement as APSRC board members, I can assure you that the members of the Rural Districts Advisory Board – which is composed of traditional public school superintendents – knows exactly what APSRC is up to. I can also tell you that these members have no problem with APSRC’s lobbying or other questionable activities. They actually think that their districts are “safe” from the Waltons. 

Not true. The Waltons aren’t looking to infiltrate districts with the goal of opening new charter schools. The Waltons – and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with the full support of Trump and the Republican party – want to do away with public education altogether. 

Arkansas superintendents who can’t seem to see the bigger picture are easily lured into APSRC’s net. 

Arkansas superintendents, I’m telling you right now that your APSRC membership will not protect you. It will not halt the Walton agenda. Your little school districts mean nothing to APSRC or the Waltons. Nothing. 

You serve only as their cover. That makes you appear not only pathetically naive but also recklessly unconcerned about the future of public education in Arkansas. Shame. On. You. Take a stand. Drop your membership. Look out for your schools and communities. 

APSRC sees you as silly little members who are willing to pay $2,500 a year (minimum) for the belief that you are now protected from the charter invasion. 

I see you as little lambs headed to market. My family raised sheep during my childhood. They were sweet animals, but sadly and appallingly stupid. 

Don’t be a sheep. Get in touch with Philip Young, director of the Arch Ford co-op. He’ll talk some common sense into you. Most of you don’t even like Smith. (I know this because you told me so.) So cut him off. As it is, his credibility with the Waltons is fading. 

OK, so let’s move on to some other controversial topics: 

  • Teacher salaries
  • Facilities funding
  • The Joint Education Committee’s unwillingness to increase Special Education Catastrophic Funding
  • The insistence on adhering to what makes a school “adequate” as opposed to “excellent”

Think of your teachers and the salary schedule. In his bid for re-election, Governor Asa Hutchinson sought to woo educators by promising teensy increases in teacher salaries. I heard the behind-the-scenes discussions, which is why I remain incredulous that so many educators fell for this scam. 

Now that we’re dwelling on the paltry salaries of Arkansas teachers, let’s take a look at what staff members at the Walton-funded Arkansas Public School Resource Center are earning (Full disclosure – I’m “Catherine McFarland.)

  • Brunell, Nathalie Finance Specialist 85,500
  • Burnett, Hazel Finance Specialist 95,790
  • Chance, Teresa Common Core Specialist 108,000
  • Hanlon, Kathleen Finance Specialist 100,000
  • Ketcham, Joanna Administrative Assistant 61,000
  • McFarland, Catherine Communications Director 74,675
  • McRae, Scott Finance Specialist 82,000
  • Rich, Kenneth Director of Finance Services 135,000
  • Saracini, Michael Instructional Technology Specialist 67,310
  • Smith, Daniel Executive Director 180,000
  • Todd, Lisa Director of Education 135,000
  • Walter, Alexis Staff Attorney 100,000
  • Walters, Lisa Office Manager 69,846
  • Wells, Jennifer Staff Attorney 61,800
  • Wells, Kendal Director of Technology 115,360
  • Williams, Jeana Assoc Dir of Education 93,500

APSRC Salary Grand Total: $1,564,781

This information is included in Southern Arkansas University’s 2018-19 annual report.

In conclusion, here’s the breakdown:

Governor Asa Hutchinson, who hails from Northwest Arkansas, is following marching orders issued by the Waltons. 

Remember, Hutchinson is the one who made it possible for a non-educator – former Senator Johnny Key – to become the Arkansas Department of Education’s commissioner. Sure, this appointment required a little tweak of the law, but hey – Key is a loyal Walton backer.

Meanwhile, Asa’s nephew, Senator Jim Hendren, who is on the Senate Education Committee, also is serving as a member of APSRC’s Policy Board. 

But wait – so is former lawmaker Jim Wilson, who also serves as a member of Arkansas’ Charter Authorizing Panel. 

My point is this – Arkansas Republicans have long been in cahoots with the Waltons. The state Senate and House education lawmakers most hostile to public schools are not only Republican but beholden to the Waltons. 

Your vote matters. And superintendents – your unwillingness to stand up to APSRC and the Walton Family Foundation will be the reason that privatization in education is made possible. 

Again – shame on you.

One thought on “Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 8

  1. There is the requirement of Ark.Const., Art. 14, § 1 that “The State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” With a legislature and Arkansas Supreme Court already in the deep pockets, I would think that they could to the old soft shoe and get around this.

    Like

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