How Walton is Doubling Down on Charter Schools

Recent volatility in the stock market has been giving investors plenty of jitters lately, but the Walton Family Foundation has no such worries about its investment in the nation's charter school movement.

The funder is so confident, in fact, that it just announced a major new initiative to grow new charter schools and keep existing ones running. Walton announced it will spend $1 billionthat's billion with a "B," folksover the next five years. That's almost equal to the amount the funder has spent on K-12 education initiatives in the last two decades, and signals that the the funder will continue its high funding levels in this area of recent years. (WFF spent around $200 million on K-12 in 2014, a big jump from the previous year.)

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

The Walton announcement also comes a few months after the unveiling of a $500 million plan, spearheaded by the Broad Foundation, to double the number of students in charter schools in Los Angeles. That ambitious effort, which involves a number of foundations including Walton, suggests that key ed reform funders haven't lost faith in charter schools despite questions about their effectiveness over the years. 

Related: If You Thought Charter School Funders Might Be Losing Steam, Think Again

The Walton announcement also comes on the heels of news that several members of the Walton family recently set aside $400 million for philanthropyabove and beyond the normal flow of funds into the family's foundation. The bigger picture, here, is that the Waltons are reducing the size of their stake in Walmart, which has the potential to free up vast new resources for philanthropy. Collectively, the Walton heirs were worth nearly $150 billion last year, according to Forbes

It's not surprising that the Waltons would choose to double down on charter schools, which have been a signature focus of the family's giving for years, along with the infrastructure that supports such schools. Charter management organizations, charter school associations, pro-charter policy advocacy and research, and organizations such as Teach For Americaa major source of teachers for the nation's charter schoolsall have received funding from Walton. About a quarter of charter schools nationwide have received start-up grants from Walton. Last year alone, the foundation supported 100 new charter school startups with more than $20 million in grantsor one in five of all new charter schools that opened in 2015. 

Walton plans to spend the new $1 billion over the next five years in areas where the funder already has a presence. The funding will create new charter schools and develop "pipelines of talent," according to Marc Sternberg, Walton's director of education philanthropy. The foundation also indicates that it will continue to invest in K-12 research and policy advocacy, an area that it has given a lot of attention to in recent years.

In a public five-year strategic plan, the foundation says that it's realized that it needs to do more to promote environments that support school choice. Originally, it says, the "thought was that more choices would generate more competition. Competition would catalyze systematic improvement." But now it sees that "in order for choice and opportunitythe ultimate forms of parent empowermentto spur change, cities need to create environments that support choice. This means creating enrollment platforms, equitable transportation access, fair funding and readily accessible, current information on schools and student performance for families and other stakeholders."

Of course, doing all that means that the foundation and its grantees are likely to play an even more active role in state and local politics, raising yet more questions about the influence of private philanthropy over public education. 

Regardless, the Walton announcement amounts to serious good news for current grantees of the foundation, suggesting that recent high funding levels will continue into the future. 

It's been 25 years since Minnesota passed the nation's first charter school law in 1991. Since then, the movement has expanded across the country, with more than 6,000 charter schools operating in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. While their popularity is beyond doubt, the evidence of whether and to what extent charter schools improve student achievement remains mixed. Some studies indicate that charter schools offer a greater array of educational choices, especially for low-income urban families. In some cities, students in charter schools have outperformed their peers in urban school systems. Other studies have shown that charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools.

While charter schools may not be a cure-all for education woes, they hold a prominent position in the nation's K-12 landscape. This new funding commitment from Walton all but guarantees they will become even more of a presence.