Arkansas Teachers Went On Strike. Here Are the Corporate School Privatizers They’re Up Against.

Gin Armstrong and Derek Seidman

Alice, Jim and Rob Walton in 2011. Their Walton Family Foundation is a top driver of the school privatization agenda in Arkansas (Image: Walmart Flickr)

Teach­ers of Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas went on strike Thurs­day over the state’s deci­sion to strip their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights and cur­tail local con­trol of the school dis­trict. It was the teach­ers’ first strike since 1987, and only their sec­ond strike ever. 

The Arkansas State Board of Edu­ca­tion, whose mem­bers are appoint­ed by the Gov­er­nor, vot­ed in Octo­ber to end its recog­ni­tion of the Lit­tle Rock Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, the city’s teacher’s union. The end­ing of the recog­ni­tion of the union came as its con­tract expired on Octo­ber 31. The Lit­tle Rock Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion is the only teach­ers union in the entire state of Arkansas.

The teach­ers are demand­ing the return of bar­gain­ing pow­er from the state. They are also want full local con­trol of the dis­trict returned. The state took over­sight over Lit­tle Rock schools in 2015, claim­ing low test scores at some schools, and ear­li­er this year sought to cre­ate a two-tiered school sys­tem that many believe would have, in effect, racial­ly seg­re­gat­ed the city’s schools. While that effort by the Board of Edu­ca­tion was defeat­ed, it respond­ed by with­draw­ing recog­ni­tion of the union. (For fur­ther details about the lead-up to the strike and the issues behind it, read Eric Blanc’s help­ful col­umn at Jacobin).

Gov­er­nor Asa Hutchin­son has defend­ed the state’s con­tin­ued takeover of the local school dis­trict, and he appoint­ed 8 of the 9 state Board of Edu­ca­tion mem­bers who vot­ed to end recog­ni­tion of the teach­ers’ union. As we dis­cuss below, sev­er­al of the board mem­bers are tied to cor­po­rate back­ers of school pri­va­ti­za­tion in Arkansas.

Like oth­er teach­ers who have recent­ly struck – from Los Ange­les and Chica­go to Ari­zona and West Vir­ginia and beyond – Lit­tle Rock’s teach­ers are pit­ted against a bil­lion­aire-backed school pri­va­tion agen­da that wants to crush col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights and advance char­ter schools. As in those strikes, Lit­tle Rock stu­dents have the back­ing of their stu­dents, thou­sands of whom recent­ly staged a sick out” protest in sup­port of their teachers.

A major backer of the anti-union, pro-char­ter agen­da in Arkansas is the Wal­ton fam­i­ly, whose foun­da­tion is a huge fun­der of the school pri­va­ti­za­tion infra­struc­ture that exists across the state. In addi­tion to the Wal­tons, cor­po­rate elites from Mur­phy Oil, the Arkansas State Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Arkansas Demo­c­rat Gazette and oth­ers are back­ers of the school pri­va­ti­za­tion efforts. These cor­po­rate inter­ests are close to Gov­er­nor Hutchin­son, who sup­ports their agen­da, and they have close ties to the state Board of Edu­ca­tion. In addi­tion, they are also inter­locked with a host of lob­by­ists and aca­d­e­mics that push their agenda.

The Wal­ton Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion and the Arkansas School Pri­va­ti­za­tion Empire”

A major dri­ver of the school pri­va­ti­za­tion agen­da in Arkansas is the bil­lion­aire Wal­ton fam­i­ly. The Wal­tons owns Wal­Mart, which is head­quar­tered in Ben­tonville, Arkansas. As of 2018, the three chil­dren of Jim Wal­ton, the late founder of Wal­mart, were worth a com­bined $163.2 billion.

The Wal­tons are major advo­cates of char­ter schools nation­al­ly, and they car­ry out their school pri­va­ti­za­tion agen­da through their Wal­ton Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion, which show­ers hun­dreds of mil­lions on pro-char­ter groups and schools. The foun­da­tion claims it has invest­ed a whop­ping $407 mil­lion into push­ing char­ter schools since 1997. Accord­ing to a recent report put out by the Arkansas Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, the Wal­tons pump mil­lions into prop­ping up the state’s school pri­va­ti­za­tion infra­struc­ture – or what the report calls the Arkansas’s School Pri­va­ti­za­tion Empire.” 

It’s not just that the Wal­tons give big mon­ey to a few groups – it’s also that these groups then dis­trib­ute that mon­ey to oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, lob­by­ists, con­sul­tants, and aca­d­e­mics, cre­at­ing a vast net­work of bil­lion­aire-fund­ed activ­i­ty to attack union­ized teach­ers and push char­ter schools. 

For exam­ple, the Wal­ton fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion gave $350,000 to the Arkansans for Edu­ca­tion Reform Foun­da­tion (AERF) in 2017 – around 80% of all the con­tri­bu­tions the orga­ni­za­tion took in that year. 

The AERF board includes oth­er pow­er­ful fun­ders and advo­cates of school pri­va­ti­za­tion in the state, such as Clai­borne Dem­ing, the for­mer CEO of Mur­phy Oil, a big backer of char­ter schools in Arkansas; William Dil­lard III, part of the Dil­liard fam­i­ly that owns the Dilliard’s depart­ment stores; and Wal­ter Huss­man, pub­lish­er of the Arkansas Demo­c­rat-Gazette, the state’s flag­ship news­pa­per. Jim Wal­ton is also on the board.

In addi­tion to the $350,000 that the Wal­ton donat­ed to the AERF in 2017, Dem­ing gave $60,000 and Dil­liard III gave $10,000, while the Nation­al Chris­t­ian Foun­da­tion gave $15,000, accord­ing the the group’s 2017 990 form.

AERF has in turn used the mon­ey it receives from the Wal­ton bil­lion­aire for­tune and oth­er Arkansas elites to fund oth­er school pri­va­ti­za­tion efforts. For exam­ple, it gave $115,000 to Arkansas Learns, which describes itself as the Voice of Busi­ness for excel­lent edu­ca­tion options – includ­ing indus­try-rel­e­vant career path­ways…” The CEO of Arkansas Learns, Gary New­ton, is also the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the AERF (for which he earned $189,639 in com­pen­sa­tion in 2017). 

In turn, Arkansas Learns has the same board mem­bers as AERF, and Randy Zook, the CEO of the Arkansas Cham­ber of Com­merce, whose wife Dianne Zook is on the state Board of Edu­ca­tion that decid­ed to end recog­ni­tion of the Lit­tle Rock teach­ers’ union, is also a board mem­ber. Dianne Zook is also the aunt of Gary Newton.

Togeth­er, the Zooks and New­ton rep­re­sent a pro-school pri­va­ti­za­tion pow­er nexus tied to the Gov­er­nor, Board of Edu­ca­tion, the Wal­tons, the state’s Cham­ber of Com­merce, and the state’s char­ter school infra­struc­ture, all bound by famil­ial ties.

Lob­by­ists and aca­d­e­mics push­ing school privatization

A whole host of oth­er enti­ties accept cor­po­rate mon­ey to push the school pri­va­ti­za­tion agen­da. These include the lob­by­ist Lau­rie Lee and her firm Trace Strate­gies, which took in $205,756 dol­lars from AERF in 2016. Lee is the Chair­man and CEO of the Reform Alliance, which over­sees the state’s vouch­er pro­gram, the Suc­ceed Schol­ar­ship.” Gov­er­nor Hutchin­son has approved $1.8 mil­lion in funds for the vouch­er pro­gram, in effect chan­nel­ing this pub­lic mon­ey towards the AERF-tied Lee and her Reform Alliance to car­ry out their char­ter school agenda.

You can read about more groups tied to the Arkansas school pri­va­ti­za­tion net­work – such as the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Edu­ca­tors, which received $200,000 from the Wal­ton Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion in 2017 – in the full report put out by the Arkansas Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion released this sum­mer (the AEA report also states that the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Edu­ca­tors pro­duces a pro-pri­va­ti­za­tion newslet­ter” and that its foun­da­tion is an asso­ciate of the State Pol­i­cy Net­work, along­side the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil,” all tied to the Koch donor network).

Anoth­er way the Arkansas cor­po­rate-backed char­ter effort push­es its agen­da is through the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas Fayetteville’s Office of Edu­ca­tion Reform, which was found­ed with the help of a $10 mil­lion grant from the Wal­tons. Accord­ing to the AEA report, it pro­duces pro pri­va­ti­za­tion pol­i­cy papers as well as lead­ers in the pri­va­ti­za­tion move­ment,” and it’s chaired by Jay Greene, a for­mer fel­low with the con­ser­v­a­tive Man­hat­tan Insti­tute, which is fund­ed by cor­po­ra­tions like Exxon, Pfiz­er, and many oth­ers, as well as Wal­ton money.

The University’s Wal­ton-backed Office of Edu­ca­tion Reform serves as a pipeline for char­ter school advo­cates. For exam­ple, Sarah Moore, a grad­u­ate of the pro­gram, served as Gov­er­nor Hutchinson’s edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy advi­sor for three years, and is now a mem­ber of the state Board of Education.

Along with the Wal­tons and their fun­dees, Wal­ter Huss­man, the pub­lish­er of the state’s biggest news­pa­per, the Arkansas Demo­c­rat Gazette, is a major backer of school pri­va­ti­za­tion. Huss­man is CEO of WEHCO Media and a board mem­ber of C‑SPAN, the Asso­ci­at­ed Press, and the Amer­i­can Soci­ety of News­pa­per Edi­tors. He is also the for­mer chair­man of the Greater Lit­tle Rock Cham­ber of Com­merce, and the pub­lish­er of the Chat­tanooga Times Free Press.

The Arkansas Board of Education’s ties to cor­po­rate back­ers of school privatization

As the Arkansas State Board of Edu­ca­tion, 8 of whose 9 mem­bers were appoint­ed by Gov­er­nor Hutchin­son, seeks to bust the Lit­tle Rock teach­ers union, it’s impor­tant to know that sev­er­al board mem­bers are close­ly tied to the school pri­va­ti­za­tion efforts.

  • Diane Zook is the board chair. Her nephew is Gary New­ton, the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Arkansans for Edu­ca­tion Reform Foun­da­tion. Her hus­band Randy Zook is CEO of the Arkansas Cham­ber of Com­merce and sits on the boards of Arkansas Learns and a KIPP char­ter school. 
  • Susan Cham­bers was a Wal­Mart exec­u­tive, based in Ben­tonville, who recent­ly retired. 
  • Sarah Moore is a for­mer edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy aide to Gov­er­nor Hutchin­son and a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas Fayetteville’s Office of Edu­ca­tion Reform, which, as men­tioned, received seed mon­ey from the Waltons.
  • Brett Williamson is an employ­ee of the Mur­phy Oil-born finan­cial empire” and is a direc­tor of the Mur­phy Foun­da­tion. Mur­phy Oil is a big backer of the char­ter move­ment in Arkansas. 

Here’s a slideshow map of the inter­locks between the Arkansas State Board of Edu­ca­tion and the state’s Cham­ber of Commerce:

In sum, Arkansas teach­ers and stu­dents face a well-fund­ed school pri­va­ti­za­tion effort backed by major cor­po­rate enti­ties with influ­ence that stretch­es from the Governor’s office to the state Board of Edu­ca­tion to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas. As Lit­tle Rock teach­ers strike today, they strike against school pri­va­ti­za­tion and the deep­en­ing of school seg­re­ga­tion, and they fol­low in the foot­steps of teach­ers across the coun­try who are stand­ing up to the bil­lion­aire class’s attempt to crush teacher unions and push char­ter schools and the expense of the pub­lic good. 

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly post­ed at Lit­tle­Sis’s Eyes on the Ties

Gin Arm­strong is a senior research ana­lyst with the Pub­lic Account­abil­i­ty Ini­tia­tive & Lit​tle​Sis​.org. She is based in Buf­fa­lo, New York. Derek Sei­d­man is a research ana­lyst with the Pub­lic Account­abil­i­ty Ini­tia­tive & Lit​tle​Sis​.org. He is based in Buf­fa­lo, New York.
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