Why Is This Charter Powerhouse Cutting Checks to Atlanta Public Schools?

An elementary school in atlanta

An elementary school in atlanta

The Walton Family Foundation is the nation's biggest private supporter of charter schools. No foundation has done more to advance charters, and along the way, no foundation has been more often accused of undermining traditional district schools. So we were intrigued to learn of the recent announcement of $2.1 million in support for the Atlanta Public Schools (APS).

No, you didn't misread that.

Walton is not usually known for awarding funds to districts, at least not outside its home state of Arkansas. Its gift to the 55,000-student Atlanta system, however, aligns with much of the funder's charter school advocacy. The funding will support the school district's turnaround program, a plan under Superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen to improve some of Atlanta's most chronically underperforming schools by giving charter operators a chance at managing the schools. The Atlanta Board of Education approved the turnaround plan in March 2016.

The funding from Walton will support turnaround efforts at two Atlanta elementary schools, support research to evaluate the district's turnaround program, and create a data dashboard to inform parents about school options and their children's achievement. The dashboard, known as APS Insights, will inform Atlanta parents about school options across the city, and provide the parents with real-time updates on their children's grades, attendance and behavior. The dashboard project accounts for $550,000 of the $2.1 million gift from Walton.

Two elementary schools—Thomasville Heights and Gideons—will each receive $325,000 grants to support their turnaround efforts. The two schools are among several Atlanta schools that will be turned over to charter operators under a turnaround program.

Both schools have long records of low performance with less than 10 percent of third grade students at the two schools reading at or above grade level, according to a report by The 74, the education news site that also receives funding from Walton.

Mathematica Policy Research, a respected research and evaluation firm, will receive $900,000 to conduct a three-year evaluation of the APS turnaround program. 

The turnaround program in Atlanta has generated a fair amount of controversy, with some critics warning of a takeover by privatization advocates. The Georgia Education Association has taken APS to court, arguing that the school district illegally dismissed some teachers as part of the effort. The appearance of the Walton Family Foundation on the scene is likely to further alarm some observers. 

But in a news release, Carstarphen welcomed the Walton support as positive for APS. Certainly, this is a district that could use some good news. Hired in 2014, Carstarphen was tasked with turning the troubled system around after a cheating scandal that resulted in the indictment of more than 30 APS teachers and administrators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall. Eleven teachers were convicted in 2015 on racketeering charges stemming from the scandal.

The turnaround program to bring in charter operators to run some of the city's worst schools is consistent with Walton's education funding strategy, which also identifies Atlanta—along with Camden, Denver, Memphis, and nine other U.S. cities—as focus areas for its K-12 grantmaking efforts. In the past, Walton has provided more than $9 million in funding to K-12 projects in Atlanta, mostly focused on school choice for parents.

The idea of charter operators taking over low-performing traditional public schools is not new idea—and certainly not new to Walton. This model turned much of the the public school system in New Orleans into charter schools. Walton has been a key supporter of the New Orleans efforts. It also has supported "parent trigger" movements, in which parents can take over troubled public schools and transform them into charters. 

While there have been some success stories, much of the empirical evidence is mixed, with many charter schools performing no better than many traditional schools. We'll be watching the Atlanta program with great interest. Like so many major U.S. cities, Atlanta is plagued by high poverty rates and other socio-economic problems that undermine student achievement. A study released in 2015 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that 80 percent of Atlanta's African-American children live in communities with high concentrations of poverty, compared with 6 percent of their white peers.