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Right-Wing Think Tank, Walmart Heirs Behind Latest Attack on Arkansas Teachers

SB 473 caps decades of efforts by the right to eviscerate teachers’ unions.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a town hall to discuss the Arkansas LEARNS omnibus education package with Education Secretary Jacob Oliva in Heber Springs, Arkansas.

With very little fanfare, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a host of new legislation in April — including SB 473, a bill that prohibits union dues from being automatically deducted from public school teachers’ salaries.

The bill may pale in comparison to the Republican governor’s omnibus education package, Arkansas LEARNS, which she signed a month earlier and delivers on GOP priorities to undermine public schools through voucher programs called “educational freedom funds” and prohibitions against teaching the accurate history of slavery and racial injustice in the U.S.

Still, SB 473 caps decades of efforts by the Right to eviscerate teachers’ unions.

The Freedom Foundation, an anti-union think tank that lobbied for the bill, claimed it as its “first successful legislation.” The new law would “immediately help teachers keep even more of their hard-earned money by stopping automatic union dues payments out of their paychecks,” the organization said in a press release.

“Public education has faced an unrelenting onslaught from the legislature this session and the final act is an effort to weaken our ability to advocate for our students and the communities we serve,” said Carol B. Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association (AEA) — the state’s only teachers’ union — in a media statement. “Attempts to weaken our organization will subsequently weaken our public schools.”

Researchers monitoring anti-union legislation say that although 2023 has already been a banner year for bills that undermine teachers, in most states the focus has largely shifted from union busting to more avowedly cultural issues. Republican lawmakers introduce dues deduction prohibitions every legislative session, but this year the measures got less traction than usual as right-wing ideologues chose instead to focus on book bans, abolishing tenure, and pushing anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Anti-Union Lobby Shops

The Freedom Foundation has been a leader in the State Policy Network’s long-running efforts, exposed by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), to “defund and defang” public employee unions in hopes of boosting Republican campaigns, and won an award from the network in 2017 for its “union opt-out campaign.” It has received millions from a variety of anti-union funders in the past two decades, including $250,000 from the right-wing Bradley Foundation to pursue a Teachers’ Paycheck Protection Project.

Lobbying alongside the Freedom Foundation was a small, pro-charter school organization called Arkansas Learns. Both it and its sister organization, Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation (AERF), are bankrolled by the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation, which was created by Walmart’s co-founder Sam Walton and his wife Helen in 1987 and is run by the Walton family. Since 2007, the foundation has disbursed over $5.25 million in grants to AERF, some of which were for undisclosed “special projects.” AERF received $350,000 from the foundation in 2021, according to tax filings reviewed by CMD. Although this amounts to 80% of the organization’s annual revenues that year, the Walton Family Foundation does not list the grant on its website.

The Walton family has a long history of pushing for school privatization. In 2004, they gave a start-up grant to the Arkansas State Teachers Association, a non-union organization created to entice teachers away from actually joining the state teachers’ union. In 2016, the Walton Family Foundation announced that it would pour another $1 billion into pushing for charter schools, on top of the $1 billion it had already spent on the effort over the previous 20 years.

In a 2019 report, the Arkansas Education Association examined the connections between the Walton heirs and the privatization push in Arkansas. Two years later, the teachers’ union suffered a huge blow to its membership and power after the state banned collective bargaining for all public sector workers.

AERF has also received large sums from Claiborne Deming, a retired oil executive at Murphy Oil Corporation and current member of the National Petroleum Council, a federal advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Beyond education, Arkansas has become something of a proving ground for hard-right legislative priorities. In 2018, the state set the stage for mandating work requirements for Medicaid recipients, and in 2021 it was the first to ban trans-affirming healthcare (though that ban was struck down by a federal judge this month). In 2012, the Arkansas legislature flipped from Democratic to Republican for the first time since Reconstruction, a realignment some attribute to the huge amount of political funding the Koch brothers poured into the state.

Other dark money organizations with national reach may have also played a role in this year’s passage of SB 473. In the past, Rep. Grant Hodges (R-14), the bill’s co-sponsor, has gone on trips paid for by the right-wing Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The Florida-based think tank has been behind the national rollback of child labor laws and the push for work requirements for individuals receiving certain government benefits in recent debt ceiling negotiations between Congress and the White House. Earlier this year, Opportunity Arkansas Foundation, a conservative group founded by a former FGA research director, applauded Hodges as a 2023 “opportunity defender.

Widespread Attacks on Teachers’ Unions

The Arkansas bill is one of many that tore through Southern state legislatures this session, which saw a surge in bills targeting public sector workers, many of which track the substance of model anti-union legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Among those are a “Public Employee Paycheck Protection Act,” adopted by ALEC in 2012, and a more recent “Public Employee Rights and Authorization Act,” both of which require written authorization from union members to have their dues withheld from their paychecks.

While the Arkansas bill is the most singular in terms of intent — namely, to limit the ability of teachers’ unions to collect dues — in certain states similar provisions are tucked into bills that ostensibly benefit teachers. For example, Tennessee’s “paycheck protection bill,” signed by Republican Governor Bill Lee in late May, includes the same prohibition on automatic dues deduction while significantly increasing teachers’ pay.

However, most of the other regressive union dues bills introduced across the country are less circumspect about their sole intent to crush teachers’ unions.

ALEC’s state chairs in Oklahoma introduced SB 99, which requires written permission from school employees to deduct dues from their paychecks and annual reauthorization on a form that states in bold, “I am aware that I have a First Amendment right, as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, to refrain from joining and paying dues or making political contributions to a professional organization.”

In Kentucky, the Senate overrode the governor’s veto of a similar measure (SB 7), which Democratic Governor Andy Beshear called “an attack on unions and teacher associations that support and protect hard working Kentucky families” and threatened the state’s eligibility for more than $76 million in federal transit funds. The bill’s lead sponsor, State Senator Robby Mills (R-4), is one of ALEC’s Kentucky state chairs.

Lobbying disclosures reveal that the Freedom Foundation hired Christian Camara — who also lobbies on behalf of the anti-union Center for Independent Employees — to push for legislation enacted in Florida this year that expanded the anti-teachers’ union blueprint to include a blanket prohibition on automatic dues deduction for public sector unions more broadly. The Koch brothers’ astroturf operation Americans for Prosperity and the rabidly anti-union Opportunity Solutions Project also had multiple lobbyists on the case.

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