Wichita State University officials say a new private school being financed by members of the Koch family and built on the WSU campus is a good fit for the university.
“The fact that there are now hundreds of people talking about how educational content is delivered is pretty exciting,” said Lou Heldman, the university’s vice president for strategic communications.
“This is a time for re-examination, and this is just one among many sites of innovation,” he said. “I think it can only be good for the community that there’s so much thinking going on.”
The Eagle first reported this week that Chase and Annie Koch, the son and daughter-in-law of Koch Industries chief Charles Koch, are getting into the private school business in Wichita, financing a new pre-K-through-12th-grade school on the WSU campus.
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The school, called Wonder, is scheduled to open for preschool and elementary-age children in September. Plans call for middle- and high-school programs to be phased in over time.
Critics of the proposed school raised questions on social media and elsewhere, saying WSU – and any public university that receives state funding – should not be the site of an exclusive private school.
Zach Lahn, Wonder’s co-founder, said the school’s tuition will be $10,000 a year for elementary students and about $6,500 a year for preschool students. The school plans to eventually offer financial aid and scholarships, but won’t at first.
“How nice,” said Chris Fox of Wichita, 49. “A public space will be used to create a model showplace of cherry-picked upward-bound achievers, that in turn will be used to diminish the chances for everyone who doesn’t fit the model.”
Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, called the proposed school “a living laboratory of elitism,” saying it can’t accurately test education strategies unless it includes children of all abilities and financial means.
“If you want to live in your gated community, fine, but don’t think that gives you a picture of the real world,” said Wentz, a high school history and psychology teacher.
If the new private school began serving children with severe special needs, as public schools are required to do, “Then come talk to me about what works,” Wentz said.
‘All for working together’
Lahn said Wonder is “all for working together to expand access to benefit more students,” and that the new school plans to eventually have at least a quarter of its students on scholarships or financial aid.
He said the school also plans to share ideas and strategies with local educators, prospective teachers and families. This spring, officials from NuVu, a studio-model middle- and high school on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, may hold a workshop at Wonder, he said.
Founders also are working with Ad Astra, an exclusive and secretive private school created in 2014 by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
“As with any startup, it takes time to build the foundation that will allow us to accomplish our goals,” Lahn said. “That is what we are doing during our first year, building the foundation.
“To those who have new and innovative ideas on how we can bring this to more students, especially students in public schools, please, reach out,” he said. “We want to work with you to find solutions.”
Heldman, the university spokesman, said complaints that the school won’t serve underprivileged students “is a little like complaining that the newborn can’t dunk the ball.”
“When asked about scholarships, they said the answer wasn’t ‘Never,’ but rather ‘Not yet,’” Heldman said. “There are many, many issues inherent in starting anything. … So we’re not judging it by what it’s going to be like the day the doors open. I think that five years in, that will be a good time to start looking at it.”
The school is being built in a former print shop on the east side of WSU’s campus, just south of the university’s credit union.
The building, which last was used as overflow offices and storage, has an appraised value of $437,730, according to Sedgwick County tax records. The Kochs are investing about $1.1 million in the building and will pay $90,000 a year for the space, according to a lease agreement.
Wichita-area tuition rates
Wonder’s proposed tuition, at $10,000 a year for elementary students, will be less than some private schools in Wichita and more than others. Here’s how it compares:
▪ Tuition at Wichita Collegiate School ranges from $2,730 a year for the early childhood program to $18,950 a year for high-schoolers. The school’s indexed tuition plan – a pay-what-you-can model for private education – means some families pay as little as $5,100 a year for the upper school, said admisssions director Susie Steed.
▪ The Independent School, near Douglas and Rock Road, charges $7,200 a year for half-day pre-kindergarten and $11,000 a year for full-day pre-K through fifth grade, officials said. Middle school tuition and fees at Independent is $12,600 a year, and high school is $13,700 a year.
▪ Tuition at Trinity Academy, a private Christian school in northeast Wichita, ranges from $7,800 a year for kindergarten through second grade to $11,600 a year for high-schoolers, according to its website.
▪ Tuition at The Classical School of Wichita, a private Christian school at Kellogg and Woodlawn, ranges from $4,250 to $6,050 a year before financial aid or discounts, according to the school’s website.
The contract between Wonder and the Wichita State Innovation Alliance, signed in December, did not require approval from the Kansas Board of Regents or other governing bodies.
What about politics?
Amber Riggle of Wichita said the city has too many private schools and needs local investors to “fund the under-funded public schools that are struggling.”
“Those children and teachers need better programs and educational and learning opportunities more in line with the rich schools,” Riggle commented on Facebook. “Their neighborhoods and schools in their areas already offer so much more than schools in poorer urban areas.”
Some critics also expressed concern about the founders’ ties to Americans for Prosperity, a political activist group founded by Koch Industries executives to advocate for low taxes, limited government and school choice.
Lahn played down those concerns, saying the school’s studio model reduces the likelihood of teachers – which Wonder plans to call “guides” or “coaches” – to express ideological opinions.
“They are Socratic facilitators who ask questions to drive exploration and discovery,” Lahn said.
“Students will have the opportunity to discuss and debate ideas as peers. Like a university campus, we seek to be a marketplace of ideas.”
Heldman said the new school fits the mission of WSU’s Innovation Campus, a 120-acre development owned by the university on which most of the buildings are being financed, managed and leased by private developers.
He said partnerships forged between Wonder and WSU’s College of Education should not detract from those already built with Wichita public schools and other entities.
“It’s clearly our goal that a great cross-section of the community be able to benefit from what’s learned there,” Heldman said.