The Quest charter middle school will open in August in West Little Rock after a rocky regulatory road, thanks, we now know, to financial help from the Walton Family Foundation.
Quest was approved for a site on Rahling Road in Chenal Valley. Responsive Education Solutions of Texas, which will operate the school, then sought an alternate site because it couldn’t negotiate a lower rent on the Rahling Road site. The state Board of Education didn’t approve an alternate site on Hardin Road for a variety of reasons — including a departure from the original mission of serving far western Little Rock, traffic concerns and other issues.
For a brief time, it appeared the school might not be able to open this year. But, days after the state Board denied the move May 8, Quest announced that it would open after all on Rahling Road, at a lease rate not far below the originally anticipated cost. (Responsive Ed apparently will be a real estate landlord in the Hardin Road building it bought for the school.)
There was a financial angel.
Gary Newton, who’s employed by Walton Family Foundation money to run the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation and who’s own school group, Arkansas Learns, was funded by money from Arkansans for Education Reform, announced on his Twitter account today a “thank you” to the Walton Family Foundation and the landlord of the Rahling Road building for “saving” Quest charter school.
The Walton Foundation hasn’t yet responded to my queries, but Chris Baumann, counsel for Responsive Education, supplied a document from the foundation dated May 20. It said the Walton Foundation had agreed to give $1.3 million to Responsive Ed to help in the “planning and preparation” of its charter schools in six installments payable through 2018. Responsive Ed applied for the grant May 13.
The first installment is $450,000, with $187,233 to follow Aug. 15 and each Aug. 15 through 2018.
Baumann said the first payment covers the “anticipated shortfall resulting from the expenses related to the Rahling road facility. The initial $450,000 will go toward tenant improvements, with the remaining installments going toward annual rent.”
It was a speedy bailout, 12 days after what appeared to be a devastating state Board vote. It didn’t go to an unknown applicant. The foundation has supported other Responsive Ed efforts in Arkansas (it operates charter schools in Pine Bluff, Bentonville and Little Rock and also has contracts to support schools in Pea Ridge, Fountain Lake and West Memphis school districts.) And, generally, the Foundation and the Waltons and like-minded supporters from the Stephens, Murphy and Hussman fortunes have committed millions to charter schools, lobbying for legislation to advance their agenda and supporting friendly research in the school reform unit at the Walton-subsidized University of Arkansas.
Gary Newton, who works for at least two organizations financed by Walton money, was one of the leading organizers of the Quest middle school and a parent of a potential student. He’s long been a critic of the Little Rock School District and has used his Walton-financed job platforms to churn out a steady diet of social media postings about his perceptions of problems in the district. His own interest in Quest was stirred by a lack of middle schools in upper income West Little Rock to take students from the new Roberts Elementary. Henderson Middle School, majority black and lower income, is not far away, but is a low-achieving school academically.
Quest hopes to expand eventually into high school grades. Newton has written recently about his perceptions of shortcomings at Central High School, which many students travel miles to attend because of its reputation for high quality coursework. Newton’s aunt, state Board of Education member Diane Zook, wife of Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce leader Randy Zook, was an early supporter of Quest organizing efforts. She was the only board member to vote in favor of the Quest move to Hardin Road and said she saw no conflict in her voting for an application championed by her nephew.
In short: It never hurts to have rich friends. Some regular old-fashioned school districts should be so lucky.