A 900-Pound Gorilla Gets Even Bigger: Walton Ramps Up Its Education Funding

Education budgets may be shrinking in many states, but at the Walton Family Foundation, education funding is growing—and that’s good news for charter school networks and ed reform outfits seeking to influence the public policy debate over K-12 education. Whether it's good news for public schools as a whole is a question we'll leave to others. 

Walton’s 2014 annual report showed the funder’s education grantmaking for that year totaled $202.5 million, a 23 percent increase over the $164.2 million that Walton provided the previous year. In a time when school spending has fallen as a legacy of the Great Recession, increased funding from private funders such as Walton is a notable trend, underscoring the rising role of philanthropy in shaping what has historically been a very democratic sector of American life. 

Walton has always been an ambitious and activist funder in the ed space, but now it seems to be pushing even harder. This funder pursues a two-track strategy to change K-12 education in the United States: First, building an alternative network of charter schools and institutions to support these schools. Second, pushing for public policy changes that make it easier to create charter schools, reduce the power of teachers unions, and enact other education reforms. 

Whatever one may think about the Walton Foundation's ideas, its grantmaking strategy is smart and comprehensive. The foundation works to reshape education policies in ways that support the concrete changes it's enacting on the ground. Too many funders put all their eggs in one or the other of these baskets. Drawing on the world's biggest family fortune, the Walton Foundation has enough eggs to fill both baskets. 

While Walton is well known for funding the bricks-and-mortar of charter schools, its policy grants get less attention and may be the most intriguing part of its grantmaking. The foundation pumped $80 million into this area last year, pulling nearly every lever of influence that it can get its hands on. 

For starters, Walton has continued to bankroll groups advocating for charter schools. Big grants have gone to numerous state-level advocates, like the California Charter School Association and the Florida Charter School Alliance, and to national groups, like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 

Walton is also a keen believer in investing in think tanks, putting money into education policy shops and also bigger national centers. Last year, grants went to the American Enterprise Institute, Aspen Institute, Brookings Institution, Center for Education Reform, Heritage Foundation, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Institute for Justice, Third Way Institute, the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, and a number of other groups.

What's striking about Walton's policy funding is the sheer number of groups that it funds—many of them year after year. Its investment in state level advocacy and think tank work is also notable. Of course, that makes sense, given how much power state policymakers wield over education policy. Overall, about 39 percent of the funder’s education grants go to support policy work. 

Meanwhile, the foundation continues to put big money into supporting the creation of new charter schools and backing existing ones. The largest recipients in this category included:

  • Building Excellent Schools, $9.6 million
  • KIPP Foundation, $8.5 million
  • The Charter Fund Inc., $8.1 million

And supplying teaching manpower to charters and other schools remains a top priority of the foundation. In 2014, Walton gave more than $20 million, spread over multiple grants, to TFA’s national organization, as well as some regional chapters. One grant alone was for $14.5 million. 

Walton has pursued the same grantmaking strategy for a number of years now, and its cumulative giving for education has topped a half a billion dollars in just the past three years. 

One emerging thread in Walton grantmaking is that the foundation has more often been going outside its super-focused strategy to spread money to other education projects. Here’s a sampling of some big 2014 grants that break the normal mold:

  • $2.7 million to the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, which provides support services and technical assistance to schools across Oklahoma. Services include financial planning assistance, legal services, training on educational technology, and public relations and communications issues.
  • $3.2 million to Teton Science Schools, a Wyoming-based group of schools that provides environmental education to children and adults.
  • $1.7 million to the Nueva School, a private school for gifted students in northern California.
  • $1.1 million to the Choate Rosemary Hall Foundation, a selective boarding school in Wallingford, CT.

It's worth remember that, as its name implies, the Walton Family Foundation reflects the giving interests of a number of heirs and spouses. So while this is very much a professional grantmaking operation with experienced staff and clear strategies, seemingly ad hoc grants may well reflect family desires. 

Regardless, the overall picture here is of an ed funding juggernaut that keeps gaining steam and is very clear about the impact it wants to have.