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….’”

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School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture

Cass Sunstein, in an opinion piece in Monday’s NY Times, explores the role of choice in people’s lives.  Does choice work better if we are allowed to assume full responsibility by choosing to opt into something or is it better if the choice is made by others and if we don’t agree, we can merely opt out?  For me the important question emerges about two-thirds of the way through Sunstein’s reflection: Are there times when it’s better not to have a choice?  “In ordinary life, most of us delegate a certain amount of choice-making authority to spouses, doctors, lawyers, engineers and financial advisers.  We do so when and because we do not want to take the time and trouble to make decisions ourselves, and when and because we know that we lack important information… A fundamental reason is that it frees us to focus on our deepest concerns.”  As a mother, for example, I was glad to be able to take my children to the public school to which our school district assigned them. I didn’t have to worry about being an education consumer; I could focus on being a parent and, as a citizen, ensuring support for our community’s strong and diverse public schools.

Sunstein’s article is about the broad issue of choice in human life.  As I read it, I found myself disturbed, as a citizen who cares about attacks on public schools by advocates of market choice, that Sunstein—like too many commentators who could potentially weave the consequences for public schools into consideration of a broader topic—just omits to think about the relevance of his topic—choice—to our education system where choice has recently become a primary issue of concern.  I found myself wondering if education has slipped off the radar because all the far right Republicans seeking the nomination for President are, by their very numbers, setting the terms of our public conversation.  Or maybe the problem is that, while those on the far-right are relentlessly re-defining the civil right to education as a parents’ right to choose, we supporters of schools as public institutions have forgotten about the big picture as we have focused on what are, admittedly, important details—the Common Core—too much testing—the evaluation of teachers.  We need to continue to proclaim the broader vision: the importance of public schools for expanding the rights of children in the institutions we have some power to control because they are public. Why? Because education organized around school choice presents insurmountable problems for our society and for the children and families schools are intended to serve.

Consider charter schools.  Expansion of school choice through charters sucks money out of public school budgets across the states (and in states like Pennsylvania directly out of local school budgets).  While public schools across the United States enroll roughly 50 million children and adolescents, charter schools enrolled 2.1 million students by the end of 2012.  Cyberschools, the largest on-line, for-profit charters, alone suck billions of tax dollars out of the state education budgets responsible for paying for the mass of children in public schools.  According to David Berliner and Gene Glass: “Cyberschooling at the K-12 level is a big business.  K12Inc., one of the largest companies in cyberschooling and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, reported revenues of approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars in fiscal year 2012.  The industry is projected to have revenues of approximately $25 billion by 2015.”  (50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 34)

Besides taking money from the public schools that serve the majority of children, school choice is driving racial segregation, as this blog described yesterday.  And there is evidence in study after study that charter schools engage in obvious and subtle forms of cream skimming—attracting children of parents who are engaged enough to complete sometimes complex applications—lacking specialized services for autistic or blind or deaf children—serving fewer extremely poor children and homeless children—lacking the services to help immigrant children learn English—finding ways to push out students with behavior problems—neglecting to replace students who drop out and hence building a smaller and smaller cohort of high scorers as children move through the grades. Across America’s big cities where the experiment in charter school choice is primarily located, all of these factors concentrate the children with the greatest needs in what are becoming public school systems of last resort for the children who are least attractive to the charters, which are themselves highly engaged in “choice” through subtle and frequently invisible selection screens.

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

Enormous and widespread problems are arising from poor regulation of charter schools.  Part of this is by design; charter schools were originally conceptualized as places where educators would be free to experiment, without the rules that are part of large school systems. Lack of regulation is also part of the way the charter movement spread across the states. While the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan required states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools as a condition for qualifying for Race to the Top grants and while the Department of Education has been making federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has never dealt with the need for academic or financial oversight of charter schools.  Charter schools are regulated in state law, with enormous variation in the quality and quantity of oversight.   Robin Lake, a pro-charter promoter of “portfolio school reform”at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, acknowledged the urgent need for more oversight after she visited Detroit: “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….’”

Schools in the public sector are far from perfect. Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, acknowledges the need for public school improvement, but she points out that only in a system accountable to the public is such reform possible: “There is an urgent need to transform public institutions, starting with a thoroughgoing critique of the racism, inequity, bureaucratic intransigence, reproduction of social inequality, reactionary ideologies, disrespect, and toxic culture that pervades many public schools and school districts…. This critique was long made by progressive critics of public education.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 45) “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p.11)

But what claims for any kind of control can be made on a marketplace that is the mere aggregate of private choices?  And who ultimately does drive the choices made available in the market?  Here we must turn to the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”  (Consumed, p, 139)  A serious problem is that the school choice marketplace emerged as a sort of experiment patched together from place to place.  It is a marketplace where charter operators are making huge private profits which they are investing in political contributions to prevent public regulation of the marketplace after the fact.  The biggest and frequently the most unscrupulous charter operators are the people with the power to set the menu.

A traditional system of public schools owned by the public and accountable to the public is more likely to meet the needs of our nation’s 50 million children and to protect their rights.  Barber explains: “Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

POLITICO’s Stephanie Simon Investigates Pearson—Essential Reading

No Profit Left Behind, Stephanie Simon’s blockbuster POLITICO investigation of the publishing giant, Pearson, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how things work in American education these days.  Simon warns, “Pearson’s dominance does not always serve U.S. students or taxpayers well.”

This is a major investigation: “POLITICO examined hundreds of pages of contracts, business plans and email exchanges, as well as tax filings, lobbying reports and marketing materials, in the first comprehensive look at Pearson’s business practices in the United States.  The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.”

From North Carolina’s bid-free purchase of a student data system that failed so catastrophically that North Carolina “had to pay Pearson millions extra to fix it,” to the Los Angeles iPad disaster that brought down school superintendent John Deasy, Pearson’s no-bid contracts have often been far more expensive than anyone anticipated because the products didn’t work as promised. Pearson was responsible for the curriculum that was to have been loaded on the iPads for every student in Los Angeles.  “Pearson alone stood to make an estimated $135 million over three years even though its curriculum was at that point at least a year away from completion.  And that was just the start: The district would also have to pay Pearson an estimated $60 million a year to keep using its curriculum after 2016….”  “A federal review of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad deal found the district could have saved considerably by building its own custom curriculum from a variety of online resources rather than buying a costly off-the-shelf model from a major publisher.” The FBI continues to investigate how Deasy and Pearson came up with this deal.

Where did Pearson come from?  “The company that would play such an outsize role in American classrooms was founded in Yorkshire, England, in 1844 as a family-owned construction firm… Over the decades, Pearson PLC—now based in London—bought stakes in all manner of industries, including newspapers, amusement parks and even the Madame Tussauds wax museum.  It wouldn’t be until 1988 that the company took its first big step into the education world when it bought textbook publisher Addison-Wesley.”  “The British publishing giant Pearson had made few inroads in the United States… when it announced plans in the summer of 2000 to spend $2.5 billion on an American testing company…  The next year, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated millions of new standardized tests for millions of kids in public schools… From that perch, the company expanded rapidly, seizing on many subsequent reform trends, from online learning to the Common Core standards adopted in more than 40 states.”

Simon traces how in fifteen years, Pearson has come to wield, “enormous influence over American education. It writes the textbooks and tests that drive instruction in public schools across the nation.  Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses—and treats—attention deficit disorder.  The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in classrooms.  It advises principals.  It operates a network of three dozen online public schools.  It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.”  “The state of Virginia recertified Pearson as an approved ‘school turnaround’ consultant in 2013 even though the company had, at best, mixed results with that line of work: Just one of the five Virginia schools that Pearson cited as references improved both its math and reading proficiency rates against the state averages.  Two schools lost ground in both math and reading and the other two had mixed results.  State officials said Pearson met all the criteria they required of consultants.”

And that’s just its K-12 business.  Much of Simon’s investigation explores the many products and services Pearson provides for America’s colleges and universities—particularly the company’s contracts for providing online courses.

According to Simon, 55 percent of Pearson’s global adjusted operating profits in 2013 came from its North American education division.  Is it fair to blame Pearson for providing what the burgeoning education marketplace seeks?  Not really, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University: “The policies that Pearson is benefiting from may be wrongheaded in a million ways, but it strikes me as deeply unfair to blame Pearson for them.  When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills.  The people we’ve elected have created a landscape that’s allowed Pearson to prosper.” Cathy Davidson of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York disagrees: “If you have an exclusive contract with a massive education system, is that really just earning a profit, or are you profiting at the public’s expense?  That’s the line many people, including myself, find very troubling.”