War Games, Wealth, and What I’ve Learned so Far
You know the game Battleship? You guess coordinates, and your opponent tells you whether or not you’ve hit one of their ships. They do not tell you anything more than what you’ve asked for, and you have to trust them to tell you the truth or you don’t stand a chance. (Yeah, I might have taken advantage of the “sophistication” that comes with age in childhood Battleship games against my little sister.)
The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) works pretty much the same way. You ask for something specific, and the public agency or public school district sends back exactly what you asked for, and nothing else.
Ever since my brief, tragic stint as a teacher in an open-enrollment charter school, I’ve been using FOIA to learn as much as possible about the public education system in Arkansas. I’ve also started paying attention to the work of Arkansas education researchers like Dr. Michael Mills. Dr. Mills wrote an open letter to Governor Asa Hutchinson and Education Commissioner Johnny Key regarding race, poverty, and school “grades” in the Little Rock School District.
Dr. Mills’ letter includes a telling paragraph about Arkansas’ top-rated high school: an open-enrollment charter school named Haas Hall Academy:
Notably, the school receiving the highest rating was Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville, which received an almost perfect score on the state’s rating scale. This school, which purports to have a randomized lottery admission system, has a black population of only 1.1% and a Latino population of 6.61%. This school also has no ELL students and no special education students. This is supposed to be an open-enrollment charter school with a randomized lottery admission, and it has no special education students, no ELL students, and black students comprising 1% of the school population.
I was curious. I started using Guidestar and Google to find as much as I could about Haas Hall. It was pretty shadowy, nepotism-type stuff, which I wrote up in a blog post called, “So You Want To Start a Successful School?” Nobody really mentioned it for a while (since I’m just a lone voice in the wilderness) but then Arkansas Senator Joyce Elliott linked to it on Twitter, and it went viral among current and former Haas Hall families.
Suddenly, I had students, teachers, and parents all emailing me at once. “Thank you for writing this!” “I can’t believe someone finally had the guts to say…” “How did you find this all out?” “You know, you left out…” “It’s obvious you’re an outsider, because you didn’t mention…” (By the way, Haas Hall families, if you want to report ethics violations or offer public comments to the Arkansas Department of Education, go here or here. They have more power than I do!)
There was a general assumption (part of the culture that Haas Hall cultivates) that I must be the parent of a kid who didn’t get into the school — that it must be a case of sour grapes. Because “that’s where the majority of Haas hate comes from.”
Well, no. My kids are all too young for Haas Hall — and I wouldn’t send them to a school of smoke and mirrors, anyway.
But I do take it personally when charlatans waste public money, harm children by segregating them on the basis of privilege, lie to our state government, and undermine public education.
I sent an epic FOIA request to Haas Hall Superintendent Martin Schoppmeyer, Jr. on December 18, 2018. I also collected LOTS of State Board of Education meeting information and transcripts.
Haas Hall has not yet provided all the documents I requested. There’s a three-day time limit on FOIA responses, so of course, I have filed a Complaint to Enforce FOIA. While I wait for their response in court, I spend my time sending FOIA requests to other entities, trying to see if I can hit the Haas Hall boats where I think they are.
If we stick with the Battleship metaphor, the responses to my FOIA requests have already given me a few “hits.” Just based on the documents I already have, it’s becoming clear where the Haas Hall boats must be. Here’s what I’ve found for sure, and where I think the rest of the boats are:
What I’ve Hit for Sure
- Public school employees undergo fingerprint-based FBI background checks in order to protect the children who are in their care. However, Haas Hall does not require all of their employees (who work daily with public schoolchildren) to have employment contracts or undergo background checks — even though the Arkansas Department of Education clearly requires it even for charter school staff.
2. Haas Hall doesn’t keep minutes from school board meetings that show a record of who is on the school board, which board members were present at each meeting, who was absent from each meeting, and what the vote on each agenda item was. That’s required by state law, too, since school board meetings are supposed to be the public’s opportunity to participate in school governance.*
3. Haas Hall isn’t a sustainable public school. It’s a subsidized Potemkin village. Haas Hall has a huge slush fund in the form of a private foundation, so it doesn’t have to budget money to pay for “occupancy” expenses (its own buildings,) most of its advertising campaigns, or to reimburse its faculty/staff for their travel and lodging when they (frequently) represent the school at events that require hotel stays, restaurants, air fare, etc.
Haas Hall also doesn’t pay its own legal fees (although I imagine the Rose Law Firm must be expensive, especially when the school gets sued for not paying its rent, and damaging its landlord’s property.) Instead, The Academy Foundation (a private foundation operated solely by Superintendent Schoppmeyer, his mom, and his wife) pays for all of these things. It also pays expenses for “conferences, conventions and meetings…” Maybe the Northwest Arkansas School Choice Festival at the Jones Center?
4. Initially, the State Board of Education denied Haas Hall’s application to open new campuses in Springdale and Rogers. Haas Hall had been, demonstrably, circumventing the “open-enrollment” nature of its charter and enrolling students preferentially. (Yes, this is an open secret. No, that doesn’t make it okay.) Transcripts of the State Board of Education meeting on May 18, 2016 show board members raising questions regarding Haas Hall’s “improperly enrolled” students, and questions regarding the transparency and legitimacy of the “random drawing” enrollment lottery. For example, why would an application to take part in a random drawing ask potential students to describe their academic credentials?
5. Haas Hall’s attorney, Mark Henry (of the Rose Law Firm, which has historically represented Walmart, Tyson, the Clinton Presidential Foundation, and other big names) blamed those previous preferential enrollments on an employee (whom he didn’t name at the May 18 Board meeting) who had since separated from Haas Hall. Mr. Henry promised the Board that there was now “a time-stamped fully automated computer system” for managing the lottery more equitably in the future — developed by Haas Hall’s Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at the time, Heather Holaway. (Here she is, on the 2017–18 Haas Hall “Facebook Live” lottery drawing video, explaining the computer lottery system.)
6. Two Haas Hall students helped write the new lottery program. Dr. Martin Schoppmeyer, Jr. paid these teenagers for their work with envelopes of cash that he delivered, personally, to their AP Computer Science classroom.
7. At the State Board of Education meeting on June 9, 2016 (start watching around 5 hours and 10 minutes) board member Dr. Jay Barth again addressed the “rumbling about this lottery issue,” and asked that Haas Hall and the Arkansas Department of Education provide any communication between the school and the ADE regarding the lottery process. Dr. Barth also requested any communication from “folks who have had tangible concerns about the lottery” to be presented to the State Board of Education, so they could “get to the bottom of the lottery thing.” Board member Mireya Reith then mentioned she had also heard “rumblings around graduation requirements” and asked for a comparison of students entering Haas Hall versus students graduating from Haas Hall.
As far as I can tell, the State Board of Education never reviewed Haas Hall’s responses (or documents provided by the ADE) at a public meeting. However, Haas Hall’s attorney, Mark Henry, testified at the July 14, 2016 State Board of Education meeting that Haas Hall did provide these documents. I guess I’ll have to FOIA the State Board of Education if I want to see a copy!
8. When Haas Hall applied, again, to expand into Springdale and Rogers, the matter went before the State Board of Education on July 14, 2016. State Board of Education member Dr. Jay Barth expressed continuing concern about the fact that Haas Hall serves ZERO students who qualify for special education (a statistical improbability, since 12% of Arkansas students are special ed students.)
In terms of the numbers, especially at the Fayetteville/Springdale campus . . . you know, the 0% special ed., the 0% LEP, the 0% free-and-reduced lunch, I guess I’ll just be blunt: it feels — anywhere in Arkansas, even in a fairly affluent part of Arkansas — it feels pretty hard for that to be accomplished. -Dr. Jay Barth
Dr. Barth also expressed his opinion that Haas Hall’s digitized enrollment lottery (developed by Ms. Holaway and the two students) was doing better — but not well enough — at encouraging diversity. Despite these concerns, Haas Hall’s expansion application was approved.
9. Haas Hall Academy opened its two new campuses in 2017. In 2018, right before the enrollment lottery drawings for the current school year, someone in Haas Hall Admissions emailed Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Heather Holaway insisting that she give them login access to edit the enrollment lottery. (For the full document, as I received it, go here.)
10. Heather Holaway objected, and pointed out, “This program is hosted in a high-level coding environment and needs to be altered only by people who have the expertise to do so properly. I don’t think I’m advanced enough to make changes and don’t have access to edit it (which is really for the best, I’d say!)”
11. The Haas Hall response (sender redacted) was merely, “I paid for the services. All access, information related therein are my property. I expect to have access today.”
12. Heather Holaway referred back to the Arkansas Board of Education meeting where Haas Hall had promised to prevent access to its lottery system by any Haas Hall employee, as a condition of its expansion application being approved. Nevertheless, her concerns got overridden. The Haas Hall representative (whose name was redacted before I got the documents) DID get access to the lottery code, and assured Ms. Holaway that they had been able to make the necessary changes to the enrollment lottery prior to the drawing on February 26, 2018.
Where I Think the Other Boats Are
Charter school advocates and professional Walton lobbyists like Gary Newton** frequently insist that charter schools serve the same students as everybody else. Gary Newton, of Arkansas Learns, calls “creaming” (which he defines as “selectively enrolling higher performing students”) a myth. He and other charter school advocates say charter schools accept every student equally, and point to “random enrollment lotteries” as proof that high charter school grades come from successful educational strategies — not from the privilege or pre-existing academic credentials of their students.
If Arkansans discover that Arkansas’ #1 high school has been LYING about its legally mandated “random” enrollment lottery (the one that is supposed to ensure equal access to education opportunities) these pro-charter lobbyists would have a lot of explaining to do — both to the public, and to a judge. Honestly, with Jim Walton serving on the board of Arkansas Learns with Gary Newton, and serving, simultaneously, as a foundation manager for the Walton Family Foundation (Haas Hall’s founding donor) it might even reflect on him, personally.
That would be quite a “hit,” because it would mean Haas Hall has been perjuring itself to the State Board of Education and defrauding the public.
*For those who are keeping track, the Haas Hall waiver from ACA § 6–13–619 only applies to the “monthly” requirement for school board meetings. The ADE approved quarterly meetings for the Haas Hall school board, but did not waive the remainder of the law.
**Gary Newton speaks for Arkansas Learns and its other board members Walter Hussman (publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper,) Jim Walton (inheritor of the Walmart fortune,) Claiborne Deming (chairman of Murphy Oil,) Bill Dillard III (inheritor of the Dillards department store fortune,) Luke Gordy (another paid Walton lobbyist and former Chair of the State Board of Education) and Randy Zook (board member of KIPP charter schools, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce CEO, and husband of State Board of Education incoming chairperson Diane Zook, who is Gary Newton’s aunt — his mother’s sister.)