As Walmart Does to Local Stores the Walton Family Foundation Is Doing to Public Schools

Jeff Bryant has published an important history of the Walton Family Foundation’s involvement in the growth of charter schools: How the Cutthroat Walmart Business Model is Reshaping American Public Education: “Walmart’s recent decision to close 269 stores was a blip on the national media radar, but it was big news in small towns and suburban neighborhoods across America… But what if that story isn’t just about businesses anymore?”

The Walton Family Foundation announced in January that it will spend $1 billion over the next five years to expand charter schools—“backing new charter schools and helping programs already up and running,” according to Kelly Kissell for the Associated Press.  Kissell continues, “The foundation has spent more than $1 billion on K-12 education over the past 20 years, including $385 million to help start charter schools in poor communities.”

Bryant quotes a Walton Foundation report, written by Michelle Wisdom and published last October at Grantmakers for Education, a report that justifies the Walton Family Foundation’s philosophy of school reform: “There are a lot of similarities between the Walton Family Foundation’s approach and what has come to be called a ‘Portfolio Strategy’—a concept researched and supported by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  Portfolio strategy identifies the entire city as the unit of change with respect to school reform, and tasks education and civic leaders with developing a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools… The Foundation sees its strategy as agnostic with regard to sector (public charter schools, traditional public schools, private schools). ‘The Foundation’s investment strategy is clear: schools thrive when they have autonomy, are chosen by parents, and are embedded in systems of good governance and accountability,’ says Senior Program Officer Fawzia Ahmed.”

Jeff Bryant examines the ties between the Walton Family Foundation and the libertarian Friedman Foundation that originally favored vouchers as the best path to school choice back in the 1990s, but Bryant explains that the Walton Foundation’s strategy evolved as it began to transition its investments from vouchers to charter schools. Bryant believes that the Walton’s philosophy of education philanthropy is not, in fact, “agnostic with regard to sector,” because there are many ways charters will always have test-score and financial advantages over traditional public schools:

“As currently conceived, charter schools are funded based on the idea that ‘money should follow the child.’  That is, when students transfer from a public school to a new charter, the per-pupil funding to educate that child transfers as well. But research studies have shown that this financial model harms the education of public school students. As a public school loses a percentage of its students to charters, the school can’t simply cut fixed costs for things like transportation and physical plant proportionally. It also can’t cut the costs of grade-level teaching staff proportionally.”  The result?  Public schools too frequently close. “We’re at the early stage of the beginning of the end of public schools,” public school advocate Anthony Cody tells Bryant. “(Cody) argues that having charter schools compete with local public schools around student test scores will ‘corrupt education,’ as schools chase after ever higher scores at the expense of educating all children equitably. In Cody’s mind, this will inevitably lead to expansions of charter schools, which have more leeway to game the system, and (to) the closure of more public schools.”

Recent reports in the press confirm Cody’s and Bryant’s concerns. From city to city there is evidence that rapid proliferation of charter schools is driving the closure of neighborhood public schools and contributing to financial collapse in already distressed city school districts.

Michael Masch, the former chief financial officer for the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, worries about the rapid expansion of charters in school districts where the number of children is not growing or where the population of school children may be declining.  The Philadelphia Inquirer describes Masch’s concern, “that the boom in charter expansion could reach a point of implosion, as the demand to finance new school buildings is derived mainly by the transfer of students out of traditional district schools. ‘There are no new students coming into the Philadelphia school district and yet we’re building all these new schools.  At some point, you’re going to have to start closing schools.'”

Just this week in Detroit as the public school district faces financial collapse, pro-choice Republican Governor Rick Snyder has finally pushed the Michigan legislature to put some limits on the authorization of new charters: “The latest plan floated in the Senate would revive Snyder’s proposed citywide Detroit Education Commission and empower it to block new charters from setting up shop in Detroit near existing high-performing schools operated by the district or charters.” A spokesman for the governor has said he is “seeking ‘quality choice’ for Detroit’s fractured educational landscape.”  Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, identified by the Detroit News as a pro-charter group aligned with Michigan’s wealthy, pro-choice DeVos family, accuses Governor Snyder of trying to “manage and control school choice by propping up the… traditional district at the expense of charters and parental choice.”

The destructive impact of the rapid expansion of school choice has begun to worry even its strongest supporters. It is becoming clear that the Walton Foundation’s third strategy for the expansion of charters and choice—that schools be “embedded in systems of good governance and accountability”—is very hard to guarantee when the rules are established in highly political state legislatures. Last year the alarm was sounded by Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the organization that launched the movement for “portfolio school reform” that so closely mirrors the Walton Family Foundation’s education philosophy. In the summer of 2014, Lake visited Detroit, where she became dismayed by the way portfolio school reform is playing out in an environment where regulation and oversight are lax: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”