Charter Pulse

Selected readings on US charter schools

WASHINGTON D.C. A Walmart Fortune, Spreading Charter Schools

walton-family-foundationPrep operates four charter schools here with 1,200 students in preschool through eighth grade. The schools, whose students are mostly poor and black, are among the highest performing in Washington. Last year, DC Prep’s flagship middle school earned the best test scores among local charter schools, far outperforming the average of the city’s traditional neighborhood schools as well.

Another, less trumpeted, distinction for DC Prep is the extent to which it — as well as many other charter schools in the city — relies on the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropic group governed by the family that founded Walmart.

Since 2002, the charter network has received close to $1.2 million from Walton in direct grants. A Walton-funded nonprofit helped DC Prep find building space when it moved its first two schools from a chapel basement into former warehouses that now have large classrooms and wide, art-filled hallways.

One-third of DC Prep’s teachers are alumni of Teach for America, whose largest private donor is Walton. A Walton-funded advocacy group fights for more public funding and autonomy for charter schools in the city. Even the local board that regulates charter schools receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation.

In effect, Walton has subsidized an entire charter school system in the nation’s capital, helping to fuel enrollment growth so that close to half of all public school students in the city now attend charters, which receive taxpayer dollars but are privately operated.

Walton’s investments here are a microcosm of its spending across the country. The foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants nationally to educational efforts since 2000, making it one of the largest private contributors to education in the country. It is one of a handful of foundations with strong interests in education, including those belonging to Bill and Melinda Gates of Microsoft; Eli Broad, a Los Angeles insurance billionaire; and Susan and Michael Dell, who made their money in computers. The groups have many overlapping interests, but analysts often describe Walton as following a distinct ideological path.

In addition to giving grants to right-leaning think tanks like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the Walton foundation hired an education program officer who had worked at the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative business-backed group. Walton has also given to centrist organizations such as New Leaders for New Schools, a group co-founded by Jon Schnur, a former senior adviser to President Obama’s transition team and to Arne Duncan, the secretary of education.

In 2013, the Walton foundation spent more than $164 million across the country. According to Marc Sternberg, who was appointed director of K-12 education reform at the Walton Family Foundation last September, Walton has given grants to one in every four charter start-ups in the country, for a total of $335 million.

“The Walton Family Foundation has been deeply committed to a theory of change, which is that we have a moral obligation to provide families with high quality choices,” said Mr. Sternberg. “We believe that in providing choices we are also compelling the other schools in an ecosystem to raise their game.”

The supporters and critics of charter schools, many of them fierce, cannot be easily divided into political camps. Supporters include both Republicans and Democrats, although critics tend to come more from the left. In Washington, where the charter system has strong backing in City Hall, supporters have been more successful than in New York, where opposition from teachers unions and others has kept charter school enrollment to about 6 percent, despite growth in the past decade.

The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy as well as on which schools flourish and which are forced to fold. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing, and most divisive, trends in public education — including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.

“The influence of philanthropy in terms of the bang for the buck they get is just really kind of shocking,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

A separate Walton foundation that supports higher education bankrolls an academic department at the University of Arkansas in which faculty, several of whom were recruited from conservative think tanks, conduct research on charter schools, voucher programs and other policies the foundation supports.

Source: New York Times – by Motoco Rich

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2014 by in Charter Schools, States, Washington DC.

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