Gov. Mike Beebe has written legislative leaders to inform them that he wants to spend $10 million in unobligated state money in the General Improvement Fund (where state surpluses accumulate) to create a short-term construction loan fund for open enrollment charter schools. He tells legislators that the money will be matched by a $10 million contribution from the Walton Family Foundation, which is spending tens of millions nationwide in behalf of charter schools and school vouchers and other so-called reform ideas.
Beebe’s letter says the Waltons have been working with the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and the money should enable $50 million in bond financing for charter school loans.
Money is tight. And it will be tighter still if Sen. Missy Irvin and Co. succeed in upending Medicaid expansion under the private option version of Obamacare. But the Waltons’ clout on school issues has already been well-demonstrated. I might be wrong, but I’d predict success for the Billionaires Boys Club on this latest foray to support charter schools. It likely could be useful to the new open enrollment Quest charter middle and high school to be opened in Chenal Valley, whose financial plan was seen by some reviewers as potentially meager, depending on how enrollment and other issues develop. Quest backers told the state Board of Education they’d just scale back staff if money fell short.
Walton money is helping develop Quest and other schools operated by Responsive Education Solutions, a Texas management company recently subject to unflattering news coverage for its academic offerings.
The enabling legislation will allow borrowed money to be used to lease, purchase or renovate facilities.
I’ve sought a comment from Gov. Beebe on his feelings about one of his state Board of Education appointees, Diane Zook, voting on matters advocated before the board by her nephew, Gary Newton. Her sister’s son is the lead organizer of the Quest charter school, approved by the Board 6-2, with Zook in the affirmative.
UPDATE: Matt DeCample provided a response on that question, plus some elaboration to my question about money for charter facilities at a time when some public school districts (North Little Rock, for example) haven’t always been happy with the outcome of their requests for state assistance.
It’s a one-time proposed GIF expenditure to set up a loan fund for public-enrollment charters, no grants are being issued, and the money will need to be paid back to the State. Foundation funding for public schools will continue to increase and remains the State’s top budget priority.
The governor doesn’t have a comment on Zook’s vote, once he makes his appointments, he leaves it up to the boards/commissions and their members to decide when appointees should or shouldn’t vote on specific items.