Walton Family Foundation plans to boost charter school funding 

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 397 views 

Haas Hall Academy and the Arkansas Arts Academy – formerly known as the Benton County School of the Arts – are two large beneficiaries of the Walton Family Foundation’s efforts to support the nationwide growth of charter schools.

In the past two years the two Northwest Arkansas charter schools received a combined $2.4 million in grants from the non-profits efforts to expand their charter school growth.

Marc Sternberg, education program director for the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) recently noted the implications for 2016 and beyond as the U.S. Congress added $80 million in new funding for charter school growth. He said the additional funding increases the federal budget for charter school expansion by nearly 32%, and brings the total to $331.1 million for 2016. Sternberg had reason for excitement given the foundation’s ongoing efforts to support more charter school startups. In 2015, the WFF supported 100 new charter school startups providing more than $20 million in grants.

“These grants represent our investment in the future of communities – in the ideas, approaches and education entrepreneurs who have a passion to serve and prepare the next generation to succeed in college, in jobs and in life,” Sternberg noted.

In Northwest Arkansas, Haas Hall Academy received $500,000 for its new Bentonville charter and Arkansas Arts Academy received $732,000 as it transitioned from the Benton County School of the Arts, according to foundation records.

“There would not be a Haas Hall Academy without the Walton Family Foundation,” said Marty Schoppmeyer, founder of Haas Hall.

Haas Hall which opened its Fayetteville campus in 2004 with help from the Walton Family Foundation has experienced controlled growth and gained national accolades for its college prep academics. The school has 360 students (grades 7 though 12) in its Fayetteville Charter and 300 in its Bentonville Charter which just opened in the fall of 2015 also with the help of the Walton Family Foundation.

Sternberg said WFF’s startup grants like those provided to Haas Hall are a critical part of the foundation’s overall goals.

“We plan to give $1 billion over five years to improve K-12 outcomes for all students by broadening access to high-quality educational choices,” he added.

Schoppmeyer expects to see charter schools continue to sprout up across the state and country. He said charter schools like Haas Hall provide students and families a choice they didn’t otherwise have outside of sometimes costly private institutions. He said Haas Hall pulls in students from 19 districts, six private schools as well as homeschoolers. The average student to teacher ratio is 14:1, being as low 5:1 and as high as 20:1 in some cases, he said.

Haas Hall Academy has been rated the best school in Arkansas and No. 19 in the nation by U.S. News and & World Report in 2014. For at least four years the school has ranked as one of the “most challenging high schools” in the country by the Washington Post. The school’s rigorous college prep curriculum has produced 26 National Merit Scholarship recipients in the past six years.

Schoppmeyer said the Bentonville Charter was approved for 500 students, but he chose to cap enrollment at 300 this first year. He expects to expand enrollment to 360 by next year which is near or at enrollment levels at the Fayetteville Charter.

Sternberg said the Walton Family Foundation remains committed to support schools of all types whose missions are to create new, high-quality opportunities. Since 1997, Sterberg said the Walton Family Foundation has invested more than $385 million into 2,110 new public charter schools – which is roughly 25% of all charters nationally. In 2015 the WFF said it supported more than one in five of the nearly 500 new charter schools that opened across the country.

“We are inspired by the ideas and passion of our startup grantees, and we’re determined to do all we can to help them succeed,” Sternberg concluded.

The debate about charter schools began and has not waned since the idea was first implemented in Minnesota in 1992. A 2005 study by the University of Arkansas’ Office for Education Policy suggested not enough data was available to declare success or failure.

“Our view is that there is not yet adequate evidence to make definitive conclusions about the success (or failure) of the charter school movement. … Therefore, since many of these schools are just beginning to reach their stride, it may be too soon to label them either individually or collectively as a success or failure,” noted the report.

While the administration of President Barack Obama has largely been supportive, charter schools remain controversial.

“Opponents argue that charter schools lead to increased racial or ethnic stratification of students, skim the best students from traditional public schools, reduce resources for such schools, and provide no real improvement in student outcomes,” noted a 2009 Rand Report on charter schools.

The report conclusions were not necessarily definitive about the claimed benefits or alleged harm of charter schools. The report noted: “First, the finding that charter schools are not drawing the highest-achieving students from traditional public schools can help alleviate some of the concerns held by policymakers. Second, the absence of effects on achievement in nearby traditional public schools suggests that the loss of students to charter schools is not having negative achievement effects on traditional public schools, but it also suggests that charter schools may not produce the hoped-for positive competitive effects in traditional public schools. Finally, this research makes clear the need to move beyond test scores and broaden the scope of measures used to evaluate success.”

A more recent report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University indicated that student test scores may prove that public schools are outperforming charter schools. In a review of test scores in 15 states, the Stanford research found that 37% of charter schools posted improvements in math scores, but the gains were significantly below the improvement rates of students in public school classrooms. The report also found that 46% of charter schools experienced math improvements that were “statistically indistinguishable” from the average improvement rates shown by public school students.