Twas the night before Christmas, and if you were reading the newspaper, you may have noticed some coverage of school privatization. In case you missed it, please read Sally Ho’s article for the Associated Press on the Walton family’s financial investment in promoting charter schools in African American communities.
Ho describes how the Waltons have been investing to swing a contentious debate about the implications of growing school privatization: “Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large black populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools. Black enrollment in charters has doubled over the course of a decade, to more than 760,000 students as of 2015-16… but the rise also has been marked by concerns about racial segregation, inconsistent student outcomes, and the hollowing-out of neighborhood public schools. While some black leaders see charters as a safer, better alternative in their communities, a deep rift of opinion was exposed by a 2016 call for a moratorium on charters by the NAACP, a longtime skeptic that expressed concerns about school privatization, transparency and accountability issues. The Black Lives Matter movement is also among those that have demanded charter school growth be curbed.”
Ho reports that pro-charter Walton money has flowed to organizations like the United Negro College Fund for scholarships for students who want to pursue education “reform,” to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to sponsor events, and to 100 Black Men of America and the National Urban League for support of charter schools. Walton money also paid for a luncheon at a conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, a luncheon featuring a panel of Walton pro-charter grantees.
Walton money has underwritten local efforts as well, including transporting three busloads of charter school supporters from Memphis to protest at a Cincinnati meeting of the NAACP, where the agenda focused on the NAACP’s 2016 resolution to press for a moratorium on new charter schools.
At the local level this year the Waltons are also bankrolling political candidates. The Chicago Sun-Times followed up the day after Christmas with an in-depth report on Walton money being invested in the 2019 election for Chicago’s mayor and aldermen. Reporter Lynn Sweet explains: “The children and grandchildren of Helen and Sam Walton, founders of the Walton Family Foundation and Walmart, are donors to the nonprofit Illinois Network of Charter Schools and its two allied political action committees…. the INCS Action PAC and the INCS Action Independent Committee, which is an independent expenditure PAC. An independent expenditure PAC can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors. However, the money cannot be given directly to a candidate. An independent expenditure PAC runs its own campaign to support or oppose a contender.”
At a time when charter school support in Chicago seems to have plateaued, Sweet reports that the Waltons are investing to try to stop the slippage: “Because the stakes in the February Chicago election are so high, the INCS political arm, mainly through independent expenditures, is raising political cash to bolster pro-charter school candidates.” “The publicly funded, privately operated charter school movement in Chicago may be at a crossroads, fighting to not lose political ground and retain enrollments in a period of slowing growth. A charter school champion, the anti-public union Gov. Bruce Rauner lost his re-election bid; another supporter, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is stepping down, and the race to replace him is wide open, with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union backing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The CTU organized at the 15 schools in the Acero-managed charter network in Chicago and earlier in December successfully led the first strike ever in the U.S. against a charter school operator.”
In Chicago, charter school promoters have been facing increasing pushback from advocates who seek to stabilize and improve the Chicago Public Schools. Roosevelt University economists have documented how the expansion of charter schools has financially undermined the city’s public school district. Advocates, including those who mounted a 34 day hunger strike in 2015 to reopen Dyett High School, have established that the expansion of charters was a major factor five years ago in the closure of 50 traditional public schools. The Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago released a study on widespread community mourning following the 2013 public school closures, and Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist, just published a ground-breaking and very moving book about the loss of public school institutions on Chicago’s South Side.
Jitu Brown, an organizer at Chicago’s Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and now the Executive Director of the national Journey4Justice Alliance, comments on charters and school privatization in a forward to a major Journey4Justice report, Failing Brown v. Board, published in May 2018: “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”