In 2015, students in the Little Rock School District in Arkansas suddenly didn’t know if their schools would remain open when the state moved in to fix schools nobody knew were broken.
And in reality, most weren’t. Only six of the 48 schools in the Little Rock School District had been graded as failing by the state. According to the state, however, there was some sort of systemic issue that needed to be addressed by the state Board of Education.
Since the takeover, an unprecedented number of charter schools have opened and several elementary schools in Little Rock have closed due to shrinking enrollment. Essentially, there is now a dual public school system in Little Rock: one of traditional public schools and one of charters.
So why has this happened? The circumstances under which this were happened are highly coincidental at best – proponents of charter schools on the state Board of Education had severe financial conflicts of interests in a place drenched in racial history going back to the Central High Crisis of ’57.
It is important to understand the history of racial tensions in Little Rock to appreciate where inequality in the Little Rock public schools is rooted. Little Rock is estimated to have almost 200,000 residents as of 2019 and is divided in two by I-630, with an affluent white community to the north and a predominantly black and impoverished community to the south. As a result, the Little Rock school district is 62 percent black and about 18 percent white, with the remainder of students being mostly Latinx.
This split created massive amounts of inequality. People wanted something to be done, and charters are something. They were supposed to be an alternative to public schools, a place where teachers could experiment with new educational methods. They are popular with certain educators – American Federation of Teachers strongly supports charters, saying that they are a “way to empower teachers, free them from overly bureaucratic regulations, and strengthen their voice in school and curriculum decision-making.” Charters also educate lower-income students at a higher rate than public schools, according to a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes that found that charter schools in the 27 states studied educated a higher percentage of impoverished students on average.
Charters by themselves don’t tell the entire story in Little Rock. But Jim Walton, the head of the Walton family – the family that built Walmart – does. The Waltons call Bentonville, Arkansas, home and Jim Walton has long been an advocate for charter schools. Mark Sternberg, the director of K-12 education reform at the Walton Foundation, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “The Walton Family Foundation has been deeply committed to a theory of change…We believe that in providing choices we are also compelling the other schools in an ecosystem to raise their game.”
A division of the Walton Family Foundation funds a department at the University of Arkansas where research on charter schools is conducted. Interestingly, a pamphlet on charter school finance distributed by the National Conference of State Legislatures had small print at the bottom that said: “This publication was generously funded by the Walton Family Foundation.”
Remember the school board takeover from earlier? The state Board of Education’s vote was 5-4 in favor of the dissolution of the Little Rock school board. Of those in favor, four of the five board members had significant financial ties to the Waltons, working for or with the Foundation. Later in March 2015, the Walton Family Foundation co-hosted an event in Manhattan called, “Bonds and Blackboards: Investing in Charter Schools,” where they talked about investing in charter schools. According to them, these investments are considered incredibly stable because they are public payer; most of the money flowing through the schools is government money. At the time of the takeover, the Little Rock School District had the largest budget – over $300 million –and the most students of any district in the state.
It is clear that the Waltons consider charter schools a good investment and exert considerable influence over the state Board of Education. Even if Jim Walton’s motives are entirely pure, advocating for something that is incredibly profitable and his foundation influencing legislature to decide in his favor looks pretty bad. At the very least, the charter school advocates in Little Rock – specifically the ones on the state Board of Education – have severe conflicts of interest.
Public schools in Little Rock are losing money left and right because of the Walton’s push for charter schools, and the children who suffer from closing schools are overwhelmingly minority students who can’t afford to flee the growing inequality of a dual school system.
Perhaps the Waltons, who overwhelmingly donate to right-wing political candidates, could alternatively work to rebuild the school board, or work with the teachers union, or address the factors that any kind of school wouldn’t solve, like poverty, racism, or food insecurity. Whatever the case, to say this started out as a conspiracy to cannibalize the Little Rock School District’s budget would be a misstep, but even if this didn’t start out as a conspiracy, it became one.
Rebecca Kuo ’22 is from Buffalo, N.Y.