A Case Of Government Overreach Takes a Disturbing Twist

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June 4, 2016; Chicago Sun-Times

Last March, NPQ reported on how a state commission had saved three Chicago charter schools from closing, overruling a decision made by the CPS Board. At the time, it seemed just a story of bureaucratic infighting and Illinois politics. But the Chicago Sun-Times has discovered a disturbing element that went unreported at the time: “A private foundation started by the late Walmart mogul Sam Walton and his wife has contributed heavily to the Illinois State Charter School Commission and to two charter operators whose schools the state agency has blocked the Chicago Board of Education from closing over poor student performance”

When the charter commission was created, the state government did not allocate sufficient funds to support its operations. The commission turned to the philanthropic community for the money it needed, and the Walton Foundation stepped up to fill the void:

The foundation gave $50,000 to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools for the launch of the Illinois charter agency in 2011. The Walton organization gave $300,000 more directly to the state commission the following three years. That $350,000 represented the majority of the start-up funding the commission received.

The Walton Foundation has been a major educational funder over the past 20 years in Illinois, contributing over $45 million. Included in this largesse were two of the charters that were saved from closure by the state commission’s actions.

Not surprisingly, Hosanna Mahaley-Jones, the executive director of the state charter commission, says Walton Foundation funding “played no role in the decisions to override CPS and keep the Walton-supported schools open this year. We weren’t even aware of the contributions…until told by a Sun-Times reporter. As part of the commission’s process for looking at appeals, we don’t look at past funding sources, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a conflict for us.”

The Walton Foundation also claims to have had no involvement in the decision. Marc Sternberg, a Walton official who oversees school grants, says it took no position on the Illinois commission’s action to save the two Walton-funded schools.

Further clouding the picture, a former consultant to the State Charter Commission was a prime advocate for one of the affected charters. Phyllis Goodson was employed part-time as a consultant in 2014 and 2015 to evaluate charter schools appeals, renewals, and applications. Goodson told the Sun-Times that she saw no conflict of interest because of the heavy staff turnover at  the commission since her tenure there.

Serious conflict, or just an innocent coincidence?  In March, we ended our coverage with these words:

When the lines of accountability to those whose children are being taught and those whose taxes from federal, state, and local sources are being spent become blurred, even broken, the very essence of public schools in a democratic society is threatened.

Knowing what we know today, these words ring even more ominously.