Hard Lessons on Ed Reform: Why Walton Has Given Up on Milwaukee

More than a decade ago, Milwaukee was the epicenter of the education reform movement. Starting with a controversial private school voucher program launched in 1990, Wisconsin’s largest city went on to embrace not only vouchers, but charter schools and a series of reform initiatives in the Milwaukee Public Schools, one of the lowest-performing in the nation.

The Walton Family Foundation has been at the center of much of that work. Over the last decade, the funder has lavished more than $30 million in grants on school reform efforts in Milwaukee, supporting such organizations as Teach For America and Schools That Can Milwaukee, a nonprofit that promotes innovation and reform in private, charter, and traditional public schools.

But after years of such commitment, Walton is stepping back from Milwaukee. The funder announced it was redirecting its education grantmaking activities to “places that we believe are most ripe for improving our education system.”

So why is Walton pulling back from the city that made school reform famous? And what does this decision tell us about urban ed philanthropy broadly?

Walton’s decision stems, at least in part, from its dissatisfaction with underwhelming results after years of reform efforts and policy changes in Milwaukee. The voucher program is more than 20 years old, and the city’s K-12 landscape contains traditional public schools, charters, and private schools that receive tax dollars in the form of the aforementioned vouchers. Yet even the pro-reform American Enterprise Institute concedes that these changes in education policy have produced few tangible results. The needle has barely moved on student achievement and high school graduation levels, and performance by low-income students continues to lag behind others.

A look at Walton’s past grantmaking in Milwaukee shows a clear drop in support. In 2011, the funder gave $5.2 million to education organizations in Milwaukee. A year later, that total dropped to around $4 million. In 2013, Walton’s support was even lower, totaling only $2.5 million. Grant totals for 2014 have not yet been released.

Alan J. Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and policy at Marquette University’s School of Law who has written widely about education policy in Milwaukee, sees the Walton action as part of a larger pattern of funders who enter the city’s school reform battle with enthusiasm before growing frustrated at the slow pace of change, then taking their ball and going home. Borsuk points out that some big players in the education reform game, such as the KIPP charter network, have avoided Milwaukee entirely.

Meanwhile, AEI points out, other cities have overtaken Milwaukee’s spotlight as leading centers of urban education reform. Funders that once focused on Milwaukee have increasingly turned their attention to New Orleans, Denver, Washington, and other cities.

The decision by Walton and other funders to reduce their involvement in Milwaukee is, on some level, a surprise, considering the political environment in Madison, where Gov. Scott Walker is now beginning a second term. Walker supports school choice programs, such as charters and vouchers. He also champions right to work laws and has acted to reduce the power of public sector unions, including those representing teachers. Despite state-level actions, however, entrenched factions on both sides of the school reform question at the local level have stymied the kinds of systemic changes that Walton and other funders have hoped for. 

All of which raises a question: If the favorite tools of ed reform fundersschool choice and a bludgeoning of teachers unionscan't raise student achievement in Milwaukee, despite boatloads of cash and helpful politicians, where can they work?

The Walton decision does not leave education reform in Milwaukee without its advocates. The locally based Bradley Foundation continues to support the city’s voucher program, as well as its charter schools. However, other cities experimenting with new approaches to K-12 schooling may be looking at Milwaukee and asking themselves if their communities will suffer similar fates if funders are dissatisfied with the pace of reforms.