Why Wal-Mart family foundation is spending $1 billion on charter schools

The Walton Family Foundation has already spent $385 million to help start charter schools in poor communities.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Fence surrounds the site of the former Liberty City Charter School,Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, in El Portal, Fla. The school, set up by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 1998, closed after eight years and like many other charter schools that received state funs and are now shuttered, taxpayers get little back that is deemed usable by the local school districts.

A foundation run by the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton said Thursday it will spend $1 billion over the next five years to improve public education by backing new charter schools and helping programs already up and running.

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. The new money will be spent in places where the foundation already has ties — creating new schools and developing "pipelines of talent," said Marc Sternberg, a former high school principal who directs education philanthropy for the Walton Family Foundation.

"People in poverty need high-performing schools," Sternberg said. "Our goal is that all families ... have better schools. To be the rising tide to lift all boats."

The foundation said that, after analyzing its previous work, it's clear that students and their families should have more options, such as at charter schools, and that it should be easier for families to learn about them.

"This means creating enrollment platforms, equitable transportation access, fair funding and readily accessible, current information on schools and student performance for families and other(s)," a report by the foundation said.

Charter schools were first created in Minnesota in 1992, touted as a way to promote innovation in public schools. Many of the schools that are privately run but receive public funding specialize in science, math or the arts; hold classes in nontraditional settings; and heavily involve parents. The Walton Family Foundation is involved in schools in about two dozen states.

But not all charter schools are success stories. In Arkansas, for instance, four charter schools were listed in September among 46 schools with consistently poor results on standardized tests.

"We know that not every charter school fulfills its promise," the foundation report said. "On balance, however, it is clear that most charter schools have a positive impact on student learning."

Kim Anderson, the senior director of the Center for Advocacy and Research at the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, said charter schools have mixed results and suggested the foundation could give money to public school districts directly.

"What returns have we all seen as a society?" she asked. "A billion dollars would provide a tremendous amount of services to a number of school districts around the country. Eyeglasses. Hearing exams. It is not as though we have things in the (traditional) public school systems that don't need to be improved."

The Walton foundation has funded charter schools since 1997 and says its start-up grants to 2,110 schools account for about a quarter of all charter schools nationally.

Some of the new funding will go to researchers who track successes and failures.

Macke Raymond, the director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, said her group receives money, "but we call the data the way we see it."

Her take on the Walton foundation is that it isn't aiming to "proliferate the movement" but to, as Sternberg also put it, "lift all boats."

"They've been very insistent on their successful charter school operators being available and being supportive of traditional schools," she said.

In 2012, The Christian Science Monitor reported that the presence of charter schools can help traditional schools. 

Charter schools are not a silver bullet for education reform, a new report says, but applying the best practices from some charter schools to low-performing public schools may increase student achievement.

Early data show that the strategy – applied in Houston and Denver pilot programs – yielded “promising” results, according to the report, titled "Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools" and released Thursday by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

The study could help improve cooperation between charter schools and traditional schools, which have often viewed each other as competitors. The debate about whether charter schools or traditional schools are more effective is a false one and misses the central point, said secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Hamilton Project’s education forum Thursday in Washington.

“The question isn’t: Do we need more charter schools, traditional schools, gifted schools, or magnet schools?” he said. “We need better public schools. Kids don’t know what kind of school they go to. All they ask is, ‘Do I have a good teacher?’ ”

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