Teachers of Little Rock, Arkansas went on strikeÂ Thursday over the stateâ€™s decision to strip their collective bargaining rights and curtail local control of the school district. It was the teachersâ€™ 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 cityâ€™s teacherâ€™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 areÂ demandingÂ 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,Â racially segregatedÂ the cityâ€™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 Blancâ€™s helpful column atÂ Jacobin).
Governor Asa Hutchinson hasÂ defendedÂ the stateâ€™s continued takeover of the local school district, and he appointedÂ 8 of the 9Â state Board of Education members who voted to end recognition of the teachersâ€™ 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 â€“ from Los Angeles and Chicago to Arizona and West Virginia and beyond â€“ Little Rockâ€™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 aÂ â€śsick outâ€ť protestÂ 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, theÂ Arkansas Democrat GazetteÂ 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 â€śSchool Privatization Empireâ€ť
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 ofÂ 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 whoppingÂ $407 millionÂ into pushing charter schools since 1997. According to a recent report put out by theÂ Arkansas Education Association, the Waltons pump millions into propping up the stateâ€™s school privatization infrastructure â€“ or what the reportÂ callsÂ the â€śArkansasâ€™s School Privatization Empire.â€ť
Itâ€™s not just that the Waltons give big money to a few groups â€“ itâ€™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 gaveÂ $350,000Â to the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation (AERF) in 2017 â€“ around 80% of all the contributions the organization took in that year.
The AERFÂ boardÂ 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 Dilliardâ€™s department stores; and Walter Hussman, publisher of theÂ Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the stateâ€™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 groupâ€™s 2017Â 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, whichÂ describesÂ itself as â€śthe Voice of Business for excellent education options â€“ including industry-relevant career pathwaysâ€¦â€ť The CEO of Arkansas Learns, Gary Newton, is also the Executive Director of the AERF (for which he earnedÂ $189,639Â in compensation in 2017).
In turn, Arkansas Learns has theÂ same board membersÂ 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 teachersâ€™ union, is also a board member. Dianne Zook is alsoÂ the auntÂ of Gary Newton.
This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission.