In Case You Missed It: A Hard-Hitting Critique of the Walton Family's Education Giving

Last month, we highlighted an analysis of the Walton Family Foundation’s environmental program by Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Its report examined what it termed Walton’s “market-oriented” approach to funding, paying particular attention to its environmental and K-12 education programs. While Philamplify praised what it called Walton’s inclusive and flexible approach to environmental funding, it was more critical of the funder’s approach to elementary and secondary education.

Simply stated, Walton is a giant in K-12 philanthropy. The funder gave more than $200 million to various education organizations and projects in 2014, up from $164 million the previous year. The funder is especially noteworthy in its advocacy of charter schools and other forms of school choice, including private school vouchers. But Walton ed money goes to many mainstream policy groups, including a number of major think tanks. 

What should we think of an ed funder that keeps extending its reach? And, as a practical matter, what's it like to work with the Walton Family Foundation? Naturally, we were curious to hear Philamplify’s perspective on this funder.

Philamplify’s analysis of Walton was based on a review of public documents, surveys of recent and current grantees, and interviews with stakeholders. The latter included current and former grantees, current and recent foundation staff members, observers of philanthropy, and thought leaders in areas funded by Walton.

While Philamplify offered high praise for Walton’s environmental giving, pointing to “powerful and lasting results,” it said the funder’s overreliance on a market-based approach hinders its education program. Although Walton funding has fueled the expansion of quality charter schools, expanding the range of schooling options for individual students and families, the funder has failed to achieve systemic, equitable reforms in public education, Philamplify concluded.

This echoes many critics’ misgivings about the market-based approach to education reform supported by Walton and like-minded organizations. Critics concede that this approach changes the K-12 landscape by introducing new players into the system, but also point out that it largely sidesteps the challenge of improving existing public schools.

The theory of change that drives Walton’s education giving is one that has been advocated by numerous school choice proponents, who believe a disruption of the public education status quo — through charter schools and new educator pipelines such as Teach For America — is the necessary ingredient to spur systemic change. The reasoning goes like this: Just as lower prices and better service at one company pressures competing firms to do better, expanded school choice and innovations by new entrants into the K-12 field will force traditional public schools to change their practices, making them more competitive in attracting students.

Scant evidence exists to substantiate these claims. Even a longtime Walton grantee acknowledged to Philamplify that market competition has little influence over education. The recent decision by Walton itself to reduce its involvement in Milwaukee — once the epicenter of the school choice movement — after years of disappointing results would seem to further underscore the drawbacks of this theory.

The choice model continues to dominate Walton’s K-12 giving, and Philamplify concludes that approaching every K-12 funding situation with a specific model — albeit one that is adapted to specific situations — lacks the flexibility and strategic view it finds in the funder’s environmental program.

More worrisome for Philamplify is that Walton’s focus on school choice seems to lack an explicit commitment to systemic equity. Skeptics of market-based education reform initiatives have long contended that without restraints, these programs exacerbate inequities, such as racial and socioeconomic segregation.

Such inequities could be alleviated through a funding strategy that includes greater engagement with the communities served, something else that Philamplify noted was present in Walton’s environmental program, but missing from its education initiatives. Philamplify concluded that, rather than developing a strategy to meet community educational needs, Walton’s approach has been to fit communities to a ready-made model of reform. This, too, often ignores local stakeholder preferences and sometimes fostered tensions among groups, such as between teacher organizations and low-income parents.

There are at least some indications that Walton’s new strategy in education reflects some acknowledgement of its critics. Charter schools remain a central part of its work, but a peer funder noted a shift away from starting new charter schools and toward ensuring greater quality and accountability in the reforms it advocates. We do know that Walton allocates nearly 40 percent of its K-12 funding toward activities designed to influence public policy on education. This includes support for think tanks and advocacy organizations favoring charter schools and other school choice programs.

Education is traditionally one of American society's most democratic institutions. Walton has done much to transform the modern educational landscape, introducing new players and new ways to “do school.” Let’s hope that it will use its policy influence to ensure these new schools and programs are held to rigorous standards of quality and public accountability.