Arkansas charter schools benefit from $250 million Walton Family Foundation gifts

by Rose Ann Pearce ([email protected]) 379 views 

It’s no secret the Walton Family Foundation has pushed nationwide for more charter schools. But the foundation, which has found its charter school agenda controversial in some cities, is putting $250 million into an effort to boost charter school enrollment in 17 U.S. cities.

The Walton Family Foundation on June 28 announced a new program to provide charter schools in 17 major cities, including Little Rock, with low-cost loans to expand or improve facilities with an ultimate goal to see 250,000 new students in those schools.

The foundation has supported charter schools in Arkansas and elsewhere since 1992 when the foundation made its first grant to a charter school. The foundation has spent more than $1.3 billion in K-12 education and provided money for about 25% of U.S. 6,700 charter schools created since 1992. The foundation reports that it spend almost $180 million in K-12 education support in 2015, and its “2020 K-12 strategic plan” says the foundation will spend another $1 billion in the next five years.

The Building Equity Initiative, by name, will provide $250 million to charter operators to access new or expand existing facilities. To start, the initiative will focus on locations to help create spaces for students to attend school in high-need urban areas. By 2027, the initiative will help public charter schools enroll many more students.

“The Building Equity Initiative intends to level the capital and policy barriers that prevent charter schools from growing to meet demand from families and communities,” Marc Sternberg, the director of the foundation’s K-12 Education Program, said in making the announcement at a national charter school meeting a week ago in Nashville, Tenn.

There are 13 open enrollment charter schools in the Little Rock metropolitan area where some of the initiative will be targeted. Other cities in the initial program are: Atlanta; Boston; Camden, N.J.; Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Calif.; Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Tulsa and Washington, D.C. The foundation already makes grants in these cities.

School officials in Arkansas expressed surprise and appreciation for the infusion of facilities funding for charter school. Arkansas charter schools only receive state funding, based on the number of students. Charter schools cannot participate in the facilities partnership-funding program established several years ago by the state Legislature.

Details have not been announced for the loan program, such as qualifications or when the money might available. The foundation will partner with Civic Builders, a New York-based nonprofit charter facilities developer, to manage the Building Equity Initiative.

Scott Smith, executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, said the only state funding for charter school facilities was a $5 million aid program set up by the Legislature in the last session. Still, the building initiative program likely will benefit all of Arkansas, depending on the market response from lenders, he said.

Martin Schoppmeyer Jr., superintendent and founder of Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville and Bentonville, credits the Walton Family Foundation with much of the school’s success, especially for its facilities on both campuses. Charter schools statewide are challenged in finding affordable buildings and paying for them, Schoppmeyer said. The initial charter contract period is for five years, which makes getting a long-term bank loan more difficult.

“It’s so awesome and does give charter schools a lot of validity,” Schoppmeyer said.

The Walton Family Foundation is moving forward with the establishment of an independent school in Northwest Arkansas, said Luis Gonzalez, senior communications manager for the foundation’s Home Region program. The school was announced a year ago but the school is not part of the Building Equity program because it will locate in Northwest Arkansas.

Headmaster Clayton Marsh, who came from Princeton University, is expected to provide an official report on the progress of the school later this summer, Gonzalez said.

“As part of the foundation’s goal to improve quality of life in the region, we envision a world class system of schools,” Gonzalez said.

The Home Region Program is working to establish a new independent school in Northwest Arkansas. The school will not be a charter school and thus, will not included in the Building Equity Initiative, which has been set up for charter schools currently operating in 17 U.S. cities, including Little Rock. The Initiative doesn’t include charter schools in Northwest Arkansas where the new school will be located.

On a related front, Gonzalez confirmed the historic Lane Hotel in downtown Rogers is being developed as an educational facility, “that will likely be used as a public charter school,” although a potential school operator has not been identified. The Charter Authorizing Panel at the state Department of Education will have to approve that operator, he added.

Not everyone is happy about Walton Family Foundation efforts to boost charter school funding and enrollment.

Earlier this year the foundation withdrew from its efforts to fund charter schools in the Chicago area. The foundation had reportedly provided more than $15 million directly to charter school support or advocacy programs for charter schools in the city.

Critics of the program said the foundation’s real goal was to reduce the influence of teacher unions and shift support away from traditional neighborhood public schools.

A similar situation happened in Newark, N.J., where former high school principal Ras Baraka was elected mayor in 2014 on a platform that included opposition to charter schools.

Critics of the foundation’s charter school programs also say the Walton family wants to create an political environment that allows more tax dollars to be used for charter and other private school programs.