January 29, 2013; Source: Arkansas Times

Robert Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (named after conservative economist Milton Friedman), one of the dozens of think tanks, funders, and school management groups that participated in National School Choice Week. Running from January 27 through February 2, the week was themed on promoting alternatives to traditional public schools, and the Friedman Foundation is a big supporter of school vouchers enabling pupils to attend private schools. Enlow estimates that 255,000 students attend private schools through vouchers or tax credit scholarships and an additional 2.3 million go to charter schools.

Enlow and the participants in National School Choice Week want to make charters and vouchers an option available to the other 49 million pupils in the U.S. who, Enlow says, “must attend their neighborhood school regardless of its safety, quality, class sizes, teaching staff, or other issues outside their parents’ control.” He ticks off highlights of the school choice agenda coming up in 2013: the governor of Tennessee’s plan to propose school voucher legislation, the Texas plan for tax credits supporting private school scholarships, Alaska’s impending vote on a school voucher plan without family income requirements, the governor of Indiana’s plan to expand that state’s voucher program, and several others.

What is striking about this school choice movement is the involvement of private foundations, large and small, that are investing capital into charter schools and into the work of school choice advocates. All around the nation, School Choice Week events demonstrated the involvement or engagement of foundations. The biggest of the foundation players is the Walton Family Foundation, by all accounts the largest philanthropic investor in the charter school movement. In Arkansas, where the Walton Family Foundation is headquartered, school choice advocates plan to push for a new law for school vouchers. The ability of the school choice movement to promote so many bills is partly due to the $158 million the Walton Family Foundation devoted to school choice in 2012, including $60 million for school choice advocacy organizations ($9 million of which stayed in Arkansas).

Although there are a number of prominent Democrats who are seen as supporters of the school choice movement, the 25 governors who signed National School Choice Week proclamations are all Republicans except for Colorado’s Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Some Democratic mayors are noted as endorsing the school choice rallies, including Denver’s Michael Hancock and Sacramento’s Kevin Johnson. The latter is married to the prominent school choice advocate and former Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Despite a contentious battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union last year and a recent Chicago pattern of supporting charter schools under Arne Duncan, now the pro-school choice secretary of education under President Barack Obama, Mayor Emanuel received plaudits from Fox News contributor Juan Williams as an “outright champion of charter schools.” As a result, it is no surprise that Chicago received more Walton Foundation money for charter schools than any other city in the nation in 2012. Walton’s influence continues in Chicago’s policy debates over the fates of schools that are slated to be closed or, in some cases, potentially converted to charters. To facilitate public hearings of sorts on the issue, the Chicago Public Schools hired a consulting firm to structure the public participation process, a move reportedly made possible thanks to a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Walton is by far the largest and most aggressive funder of charter schools, but there are private foundations all around the country quite willing to jumpstart privatization efforts with generous capital infusions. For example, in Jackson, Mich., the Hurst Foundation recently announced a plan to give $650,000 for a new charter school under consideration by Jackson Community College. In Texas, the Harold Simmons Foundation committed $5 million over five years to Uplift Education, a charter school network in North Texas as part of Uplift’s $57 million capital campaign ($32 million already raised).

Money like the Simmons grant to cover three years of operating deficits for new charter schools is exceptionally valuable. Most new nonprofits don’t have anything like that kind of promise of an operating cushion at the outset. The advocacy and organizing money that Walton and some other funders are able to devote to the school choice movement is a remarkable philanthropic contribution. As well as any foundation in the field, Walton understands the power of funding organizing and advocacy.—Rick Cohen