Here in Arkansas, we believe education is a human right. We educate all children – not just our own – because we believe that children deserve to be educated, and that our society deserves to have educated citizens.
However, we don’t always agree on how to deliver our Constitution’s promise of education for all. To move forward despite our differences, we research, share ideas, start petitions, attend school board meetings, contact our elected representatives, and wade into the messy, beautiful democratic process. Or we trust the professionals, and stay home. Despite the occasional glitch, that’s how self-governance works.
Right now, though, a lot of the decisions about education in Arkansas are being unduly influenced by the heirs to the Walmart fortune, the Walton family. These billionaires feel entitled to govern because they believe their extraordinary wealth is a testament to their good decisions, not proof of their exploiting an unjust system. However, their income undeniably depends on an inequitable system of “competition” in which goods and money are free to travel in search of advantageous markets, but human beings are not equally free to travel in search of advantageous work.
Because the Waltons believe succeeding in a contest that rewards backroom deals and excludes most people from competing is a sign that their ideology is sound, they are like swaggering Scrabble champions. They insist that only playing a game of Scrabble can fairly and effectively identify true genius. They mandate Scrabble tournaments in every city – all while passing tiles to their friends under the table and ignoring the fact that everyone who doesn’t speak English is automatically at a disadvantage.
The Waltons and their Chamber of Commerce buddies are collaborating to implement unregulated “School Choice” (a dishonest euphemism for the privatization of public education) in Arkansas. They fund multiple non-profit organizations with overlapping board members that coordinate their speech (and their strategic silences) to make it appear as though the corporate vision of School Choice has broad, public support. However, it’s always the same group of billionaires reflected in multiple mirrors, amplifying education policies that have been proven to cause harm.
The market’s “invisible hand” isn’t steering us toward better schools; it is reaching into our pockets to steal our money, and pushing marginalized children out of school entirely.
The billionaire capitalist vision of School Choice assumes that freely-flowing taxpayer money and a general lack of regulation will foster interscholastic competition in student achievement, efficiency, and financial responsibility – despite a complete lack of evidence that School Choice yields these desired results. The market’s “invisible hand” isn’t steering us toward better schools; it is reaching into our pockets to steal our money, and pushing marginalized children out of school entirely.
We should be equipping all schools to serve students effectively. Instead, the wealthy patrons of School Choice want random admissions lotteries that can be easily rigged (School “Chance?”) to decide which children get access to appealing schools. In an effort to attract elite students, these schools spend money and time on building their brand instead of educating their students.
Fancy marketing materials and data manipulation might make schools look appealing on the surface, but only close examination and experience can really evaluate the quality of education these schools produce. If choosing a school is like buying a boat, bad schools with good websites are like leaky boats with fresh paint. School Choice allows these rotten boats to sink with children and teachers on board, then hires other boats (which also haven’t been inspected for seaworthiness) to pull their preferred drowning victims from the water.
Already, we are buying a private education for 430 students, costing $3 million separate from what we put in the Public Education Fund. We do not have the right to govern (let alone see) how those private school owners spend our money. Moreover, no reasonable person can believe our voucher program will improve student outcomes when studies of similar voucher programs in Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, Florida, and Washington D.C. show a decline in academic achievement for students using vouchers. Nevertheless, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson gives money from our Rainy Day Fund to the Walton-funded lobbying group “The Reform Alliance,” which distributes our money as “Succeed Scholarships” so that foster kids and Special Education students can attend private school.
Unfortunately, it’s not just private schools that don’t have to follow our democratically-enacted laws. Even traditional public schools have become increasingly unregulated as a result of “School Choice.” There are currently 10,167 waivers of education-related laws in effect at public schools across our state. Our schools are staffed with unlicensed, underpaid teachers facing overcrowded classrooms without adequate resources, while “public” school operators pay themselves six-figure salaries and charge parents $120 per week if their child wants to ride the bus.
The only consistent voice against the implementation of this problematic vision of “School Choice” has been the Arkansas Education Association, the beleaguered teachers’ union that is no longer allowed to participate in collective bargaining on behalf of its members in any Arkansas school district, regardless of its membership numbers.
The Walton family, already notorious for busting unions among its Walmart employees, have turned the full force of their money and influence against the AEA. They have even subsidized a Pinkerton-style, non-union “alternative” – ASTA. This duplicitous, copycat organization siphons members and power away from the AEA, and fights against collective bargaining and teachers’ right to organize and strike. Is ASTA an illegal “company union?” Maybe. Are the Waltons buying our democracy? Definitely.
As Arkansas education turns increasingly toward an unregulated market economy swimming in taxpayer money, healthy children from upper-class, white families with strong social supports will still probably still get their educational needs met. However, our most at-risk children are being pushed to the fringes, even to the point of exclusion from school.
Adverse Childhood Experiences like racism, illness, loss, trauma, violence, and poverty have a dramatic, negative impact on student test scores. If students with adverse childhood experiences aren’t welcome in a particular school because their test scores might make the school look less appealing to other, more appealing, families in a system of “School Choice,” these kids are likely to find every school door closed in their face. Private schools require children to waive their civil rights in order to enroll. Charter schools can set their own rules for expelling students. Kids who have been expelled get demoted to “alternative learning” – planted in front of “virtual” teachers, banned from school events, and halfway to prison before they reach high school.
Would we rather spend our money educating children or incarcerating them? Arkansas children will reach adulthood either as educated, productive citizens, or as quasi-criminals who never had the chance to develop any healthy connections with human teachers or their fellow students. The Waltons are hedging their bets, investing in “virtual schools” and private prisons just like they invest in “School Choice” nonprofits and charter schools. The billionaires are going to make money either way.
Let us not be duped. Let us keep control of where our tax money goes and how it is used. Let us stand with our teachers in the fight for public education. If we let the billionaires have their way, they will kill the American Dream by pulling the ladder of education away from our state’s most vulnerable children – and they’ll make money doing it.
Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay recently left a 15-year career as an orchestral violinist to become an independent voice for accountability and transparency in public education. In 2019, Elizabeth co-founded the Education Defense League to raise money to support attorneys who take legal action against the mismanagement of public education in Arkansas. She lives in Northwest Arkansas, and blogs at Orchestrating Change.