Walton Family Foundation Commits Additional $250 Million to Charter Education

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June 28, 2016, The Wall Street Journal

There may not be strong evidence that charter schools are the “miracle drug” that will cure the ills of our public schools, but they continue to draw the support of wealthy donors who are driving much of our national school reform agenda. On Tuesday, the Walton Family Foundation announced that it was investing an additional $250 million in a new program to allow an additional 250,000 children to attend charter school over the next 10 years. The new investment comes on the heels of a $1 billion commitment to school reform and charter school expansion made just six months ago.

According to a statement from the foundation, “The goal is to create a bigger network of resources—real estate experts, lenders, financiers, technical assistance providers and more—that charter schools can utilize when selecting facilities. This will make it quicker and easier for schools to secure spaces they need to serve their students.”

The new investment is designed to help existing and new charters acquire high-quality space to house their schools. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, finding space can be difficult for charter schools, and they often have to use valuable funding to pay for their facilities. The funding through the initiative will be provided primarily via low-interest loans from nonprofit lenders. Initially, 17 cities will be targeted for new investments: Atlanta, Boston, Camden, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Tulsa, and Washington, D.C.

The Walton Foundation also sees this new program as a way to influence policy-makers to shift more public resources to the charter sector of public education. Marc Sternberg, the K–12 education program director at the Walton Family Foundation, captured the foundation’s sentiments in comments he posted on their website: “This new initiative alone will not ensure true building equity for charter schools. This will happen only when lawmakers set politics aside and put families and children first. Our hope is that this helps catalyze changes that will make it easier for innovative educators to create needed opportunities for America’s students.”

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said, “This initiative is a crucial catalyst for change, leading the way for policymakers and other foundations to address the charter school movement’s challenges with facilities finance. Lack of access to facilities finance is the single biggest barrier to opening the door to more high-quality charter schools in most cities across the United States.”

Ironically, on the same day that the Walton Foundation announced their new initiative to an audience of charter advocates gathered to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of charter schools, the New York Times published an in-depth look at the negative effects of charter schools on Detroit’s public school system. The proliferation of charter schools in Detroit was meant to spur academic competition with public schools and improve the quality of all schools. Instead, the exponential growth of charter schools in the city—Detroit has the largest share of students in charter schools second to New Orleans—has left the entire Motor City public school system in shambles, fighting over the some of the country’s neediest students so that the schools can survive.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, who is a lawyer and currently a board member of New Detroit, a civic group established after the 1967 race riots. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

Actual results seem not to affect the Walton Foundation’s desire to radically change public education. Perhaps their real objective is much larger than our children’s education. According to charter school opponent Diane Ravitch, research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, “The Waltons—who are all billionaires—are doubling down on failure. They are doing to public schools what Walmart does to communities: destroying the competition, disrupting the community, and targeting public education for privatization.”—Martin Levine