The latest Walton purchase: charter schools 

Their influence increases all over Arkansas.

AT HENDRIX: James Jennings plans charter school leader training.
  • AT HENDRIX: James Jennings plans charter school leader training.

Last year it was fine-art credibility in the form of an elaborate museum to be built in Northwest Arkansas; this year, the big-news Walton family purchase is 20 potential new charter schools in Arkansas.

It’s an indirect buy — the Walton Family Foundation provided $800,000 to set up the Charter School Resource Center at the University of Arkansas, which began operation in March. The center’s director, Caroline Proctor (former head of the troubled Academics Plus charter school in Maumelle), is charged with helping new charter schools get off the ground — help that wasn’t available to the 16 state charter schools in operation today.

“What we’re aiming to do is increase the number of high-quality charter schools,” Proctor said. “Whether by improving existing ones, or helping these new ones come out as very high-quality charter schools.”

In fact, would-be charter school leaders actually now have two places to go for help. Hendrix College announced last week that its education department would be starting a charter school leadership institute with a $20,000 federal grant channeled through the state Department of Education. Hendrix is also planning to start a charter school itself, as part of a future Academic Village complex on undeveloped property adjacent to the campus.

Proctor was part of an effort several years ago to establish a resource center for public schools — that effort was also partially funded by the Walton Family Foundation — but it never materialized. But last fall, officials at the University of Arkansas approached her and said the Walton Foundation was interested in her heading up a center based in their Department of Education and Health Professions. She wrote up a proposal that was approved in October, and the center opened its doors in March.

“They’re the most logical people to fund something like this,” Proctor said of the Waltons — both because of their history of supporting charter schools (they’ve donated millions to schools around the country and in Arkansas) and their interest in reviving economic development in the Delta.

Judging from the numbers, the center is already succeeding. There were only two charter school applications statewide in the last two years, Proctor said, and this fall there are 20, with several more in the works for the 2007 cycle.

Only a few of them can be accepted, though: State law caps the number of charter schools at 24 — six per congressional district — so no more than eight can make the cut. Of the 20 applications, about half would be located in the Delta region, and another five in Pulaski County. Proctor said that reflects the greater need in those areas for academic alternatives to traditional public schools. Charter schools should be like businesses, she said — successful only if they address an existing need.

“I am just so determined to see if there’s anything that can make a difference in the Delta,” said Proctor, who is from the region. “I’ve watched it as I’ve grown up just die.”

Charter schools are publicly financed schools that can be run by individuals, non-profits, colleges and universities and even school districts. They can request waivers of some state regulations and have greater freedom in terms of things like curriculum; in return, they are supposed to be held directly accountable for student progress. The schools get the same state funding allotment per student as traditional public schools — currently $5,662 — but no local tax money. Several, including Academics Plus, have had major financial problems. Proctor said a major part of what she does is help charter applicants with their budgets and point them toward possible sources of grant money.

The Hendrix College Charter School Leadership Institute won’t duplicate the Charter School Resource Center’s work, said James Jennings, chair of Hendrix’s education department. It will focus on training existing and prospective charter school leaders through a series of seven weekly seminars.

“We’re going to try to identify this pool and give them some initial training with theory and practice about leadership in charter schools,” Jennings said.

The grant funding the institute is for $20,000, renewable for two more years. That covers all the costs, Jennings said.

Walton money is supporting the college’s plans to open a charter school, however. Jennings said there’s no definite timeline now on when the college hopes to open the school because it will have to construct a building and develop the land it will sit on.

Meanwhile, there is still no independent research on whether Arkansas’s charter schools are any more effective than traditional public schools. The state Department of Education doesn’t dig deeper than whether charter schools live up to the goals set in their charters. Charter schools’ standardized test scores are available online, but test scores alone aren’t enough to accurately compare schools because of differences in student demographics.

The University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform, which received half its initial endowment from the Walton Family Foundation’s $300 million gift to the university several years ago, is headed by Jay Greene, a longtime advocate of charter schools. Greene recently released a research paper concluding charter schools on average do slightly better than the traditional public schools they’re closest to geographically, but the study did not look at any charter schools in Arkansas.


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