A heavyweight funder in K-12 education, the Walton Family Foundation, announced it is doubling down on its investments in school choice with a $1 billion plan to help expand the charter school sector and other choice initiatives over the next five years.
That investment will match what the foundation has poured into K-12 initiatives since it first started its education philanthropy 20 years ago.
In a new report detailing its five-year strategic plan, the foundation identified 13 cities and states it intends to work in—a decision it says was driven by growing demand for new schools and research showing academic gains among some charter school students.
“When we look at charter performance in the urban core, in parts of the country that have the most perniciously unfixable academic outcomes in the country, we see exciting breakthroughs of charter schools at scale,” said Marc Sternberg, the director of the foundation’s K-12 education program."It’s a combination of results and a surge in demand that conveyed to us that there’s a real opportunity to have impact.”
A June study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in charter schools in 41 cities significantly outperform their district counterparts in reading and math, while the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates that more than 1 million students are currently on waiting lists for charters.
The Walton Family Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Walmart founder Sam Walton’s heirs and long has been a major supporter of school choice.
(The Walton Family Foundation provides grant support for Education Week’s coverage of school choice and parent-empowerment issues.)
One can hardly turn around in the charter school sector without bumping into a benefactor of the Walton Family Foundation. Nearly one-quarter of all charter schools nationally have received startup funds from it, according to the report.
In addition to charters, the foundation supports private school choice and regular school districts willing to dip their toes into school choice.
This newest round of funding will focus on expanding school choice options in low-income communities in cities such as Los Angeles, and New Orleans, developing teachers and school leaders, and supporting strategies to help parents navigate school choice.
The Walton Family Foundation was among the first major K-12 philanthropists to invest in charter schools, and has helped shape the sector as it is today. “They’ve played a real role in pushing for the growth of the charter management sector and networks of charter schools in order to prioritize going to scale, as they like to refer to it,” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a political science and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and co-editor of the book The New Education Philanthropy.
But the foundation’s investment strategy is changing.
Initially, it focused on creating competition in K-12 to improve the overall system. The foundation’s latest report says it has learned that’s not enough. Parents need help in choosing schools—such as citywide enrollment systems, said Sternberg.
“Families need access to real-time information. Families need easy transportation options. We need government to do its job and authorize high-quality schools,” he said. “We now know that there are some key enablers outside of the school that have to be in place.”
But the $1 billion announcement has not come without its critics. Among them: the American Federation of Teachers, which released a report last June saying Walton’s investments in charters are irresponsible.
“This is not about public charters ... or about ensuring parents have great choices for their kids,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.
“This is about the fundamentally flawed Walmart model that destabilizes and diminishes public education.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Charter Sector to Get $1 Billion Boost From Walton