One Big Bankroller of the Charter School Lobby: The Walton Family Foundation

Foundations and donors who believe in charter schools have pursued two core strategies in recent years. First, they have backed charter schools themselves, with massive direct funding. Second, they have sought to influence state legislatures to win approval of charter schools and, more broadly, to shape public policy around charter schools. 

The Walton Family Foundation has pursued both strategies, but its direct support of charter schools tends to receive the most attention. (See Walton Family Foundation: Grants for Charter Schools) Last year, for example, media outlets took notice when the foundation gave $25.5 million to the KIPP Foundation, aiming to double the number of students attending KIPP charter schools.

What has received less noticed, though, is that the Walton Family Foundation is also bankrolling a massive push to change state laws and policies around charter schools — either to allow charter schools in the first place or expand their numbers and leeway. This work is arguably more important than direct funding of charter schools, since it is helping expand the use of public funds for charter schools around the country.

The foundation's advocacy strategy is multifaceted. For starters, it is making big gifts to state associations of charter schools which, among other things, work in state capitals to change the laws regarding charter schools. One such gift was to the California Charter Schools Association, one of the oldest such associations in the country (California was the second state to pass a charter school act, in 1992), with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. (Read senior program officer of education, Fawzia Ahmed's IP profile).

With 982 charter schools — more than any other state — California is on the cutting edge of the charter school movement, and the Walton Family Foundation has poured millions of dollars into this effort over the years. Defending and expanding charter schools in California is the central mission of the California Charter Schools Association. It's also no surprise that this group would get such a large gift, given that Carrie Walton Penner is the group's vice chair. Penner is the granddaughter of Sam Walton and daughter of Walmart chair Rob Walton.

The Walton Family Foundation also supports charter school policy advocacy in other states, too — many other states. Over the past few years, the foundation gave grants to state charter school associations in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas (among others). 

If you're working to make state laws more friendly to charter schools, the Walton Family Foundation is one of the best friends you'll find. And it's pockets are endlessly deep. Over the past three years, the foundation has spent over $185 million on "shaping public policy," with much of that money supporting charter school advocacy and school choice efforts in different states.

Meanwhile, the foundation has given generously to national policy groups and universities working to legitimize charter schools. It is a major funder of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the leading group in D.C. working to advance the fortunes of charter schools through federal policy changes, and it has given some $5 million to the Alliance for School Choice over the past few years. It's also a big supporter of the Center for Education Reform, another pro-charter group inside the Beltway. The foundation has also given money to a variety of think tanks to support policy work on education, including Brookings, the Manhattan Institute, the Reason Foundation, and the Hoover Institution.

You don't have to be a well-known policy or advocacy group to get money from the Walton Family Foundation. Smaller outfits also get grants to promote education choice, like Education Reform Now. Walton seems to be engaged in a saturation funding strategy, giving funds to a number of organizations, state or national, that back charter schools.

The fact that the jury is still out on whether charter schools actually produce better results hasn't dissuaded the Walton Family Foundation from pushing full steam ahead. By all indications, its funding for this grand experiment will only increase in coming years — indeed, its funding in this area has tripled since 2004.