BENEFICIARY: The eStem charter school system is among the recipients of major foundation support producing privatization of education nationwide. (privately run schools using public money) An article in Harper’s questions the benefits of the movement.

More today on a familiar theme: The impact of the Walton fortune on real public schools, a subject of importance in Little Rock, as I wrote yesterday.


Louisiana blogger Meredith Schneider, a public school watchdog, says that new reports show billionaire siblings Alice and Jim Walton have so far poured $1.5 million into seven races for the Louisiana Board of Education, where the issue is continuing the charterizing and voucherizing of Louisiana schools.

Schneider had reported $1.3 million in Walton spending earlier. They dropped in $200,000 more Sept. 20, three weeks before the election. Most of the money, about $169,000, supported Ronnie Morris, who is in a runoff, which is why I refer to Walton spending “so far.” Walton-backed candidates swept six of the seven seats on the ballot.


Multiple Walton-funded agencies are already working vigorously to shape attitudes in the Little Rock School Board, where an election is promised in November 2020, almost six years after state takeover. It seems safe to think election spending will be coming. This is an addition to current appeals for students to leave the district and efforts to demonize teachers, particularly those who belong to the Little Rock Education Association.

The Walton billions and the cash of other billionaires aren’t limited to one place..


Important reading on this is in Harper’s, a massive article by Andrea Gabor: “The K-12 Takeover: Big Philanthropy’s bid to privatize education.”

It reports in detail on the mess in New Orleans, seen as a model for the “reformers” as a fully charterized city. It also includes the history of the privatizing movement, which began with a push for vouchers. That proved initially unpopular with the public at large, so charter schools were invented, essentially unregulated private schools operated with taxpayer money and with little or no voter oversight. The Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations are major financial movers.

Note to Little Rock: New Orleans still has a school board. But it’s been stripped of authority. We still don’t know how much authority the Asa Hutchinson administration intends to give a Little Rock board, but it really doesn’t matter. The state has declared the district in academic distress. That gives Education Czar Johnny Key the authority to overrule anything the board does that he doesn’t like. In New Orleans, Harper’s writes, that means the charter establishment calls the policy shots.

The charter school idea had some merit, the article notes. They were supposed to be small-scale laboratories of innovation with intense community support, not a wholesale transformation of public school districts to a mishmash of private operators, some better than others and many attempting to cherrypick students. The following passage sounds familiar in Little Rock, where two charter organizations, LISA and eStem, have grown rapidly and leached many Little Rock students. They are now among the state’s larger school districts, with thousands of students, as a whole  less impoverished and with fewer minorities than in the Little Rock School District. They are self-governed.


When philanthropists and social entrepreneurs embraced charter schools, that vision of teacher- and community-led schools was virtually extinguished. Over one third of charters are run by large management organizations such as the San Francisco–based Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), which operates hundreds of schools across the country, including eight in New Orleans. Nor is there much oversight beyond a periodic review by a charter authorizer—typically a university or other government-sanctioned organization—every three to five years. In many states, including Michigan and California, there are so many authorizers that even the worst charters can stay in business after their charter is revoked simply by shopping for a new authorizer.

Failing charters in Arkansas have been taken over by new charter organizers on several occasions.

But back to New Orleans. The article digs deep into the failure to achieve meaningful education gains in the city and the stratification of schools into haves and have-nots. Disabled students have suffered particularly. Differing discipline policies have often been harsh.

And, of course, high-stakes testing has produced grade-fixing scandals. That’s a natural result of a single-minded focus on a test score rather than broader educational goals. (See Arkansas’s ludicrous A-F grade system, almost wholly based on test performance.)

There’s much, much more in this important article, including a repetition of the New Orleans experience in Kansas City, fragmented by charter schools. And there’s the Broad Foundation’s inroads with charters in Los Angeles. In California, at last, backlash is developing.

This is important information. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about education in Arkansas where the movement is in vigorous motion, with full backing of the Asa Hutchinson administration. I liked this observation:

The charter revolution has followed Silicon Valley’s dictum to “move fast and break things.” Charter operators strive to outperform the market while chasing a limited supply of philanthropic dollars. For children, the system is like a Darwinian game of musical chairs, with the weakest kids left out when the music stops—when failing schools close, or when they are pushed out of schools that can’t, or won’t, deal with their problems.

Also this:

The original charter-school ideal envisioned a place for community-based, teacher-driven innovation. Instead, the charter movement has come to reflect the business values of its philanthropic backers: many charter schools in New Orleans and elsewhere are more McDonald’s than artisanal eatery. Like fast-food chains, KIPP and other charter-management organizations often rely on cheap, transient labor, much of it supplied by Teach for America, which gives recent college graduates only five weeks of training before placing them in schools. Many C.M.O.s mimic KIPP’s strict-discipline, test-prep-focused educational menu.

The kids who need help most often suffer the most.