How the Billionaire Kingpins of School Privatization Got Stopped in Their Own Back Yard

The debate over public schools in Arkansas has been, for decades, ongoing and often fraught. In 1957, the Arkansas school year began with white mobs viciously attacking nine black teenagers as they attempted to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High following Brown vs. Board of Education, shining a national spotlight on the state and forcing President Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne Division.

This past January, nearly 60 years after Arkansas’ first desegregation efforts, the state board of education dissolved Little Rock’s democratically elected local school board, the most racially inclusive and representative of its majority-black constituency in nearly a decade. In making the decision, the state overruled widespread public outcry to take control of the largest school district in the state. Two months later, Walton Family Foundation-backed lobbyists launched a brazen legislative push to allow for broader privatization – or put bluntly, “charterization” – of schools across Arkansas. It was a move many believed revealed a carefully orchestrated effort, begun months prior, to undermine the state’s public school system, destroy its teachers unions and turn public funds into private profits.

Anyone with even a passing interest in public education knows how this story normally ends; one need only look to places like Philadelphia, where Walton dollars have helped launch an explosion of charters, or New Orleans and Detroit, where Walton funds have contributed to a system in which a majority of K-12 students now attend charter schools. Though it is not the only big-money contributor to the education reform movement (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a key player, as are countless millionaire hedge funders, investment bankers and other titans of finance), no single entity has poured more money into the push for “school choice” than the Walton Family Foundation. As a recent report from In the Public Interest and the American Federation of Teachers notes, “the foundation has kick-started more than 1,500 schools, approximately one out of four charters in the country. Over the last five years [WFF] has spent between $63 million and $73 million annually to fuel new charter openings.”

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