Choice Is Not Enough: What Walton Is Up to With Its New K-12 Funding Strategy

The Walton Family Foundation (WFF) is getting savvier about moving its agenda. It's doubling down on school choice, the longtime pillar of its K-12 grantmaking, by getting more precise about how, exactly, to make systems of school choice work.

Needless to say, charter schools lie at the heart of its strategy. The funder has long believed that charters are an all-important key to more choice, and it's been by far the most important backer of the charter movement, with grantmaking that goes back to the mid-1990s. All told, it's supported a quarter of all charter schools that have sprung up in the United States. And it has big plans to keep going with this effort.

Last summer, WFF announced a major $250 million initiative to help charter schools in 17 cities expand their facilities—and build new ones—to add another 250,000 seats for children by 2027. Earlier in the year, it had pledged to give $1 billion for K-12 education over a five-year period, money to support a K-12 strategy that includes not just scaling up charters, but investing in "pipelines of talent" to staff these schools, as well research and advocacy.


To get greater insight into the Walton Family Foundation's education work and its vision for the future, I recently had a conversation with Dr. Bruno V. Manno, senior advisor for K-12 Education Reform. A key point Dr. Manno stressed to me is that “choice alone doesn’t necessarily create quality, but that it is rather the larger context within which people make choices that counts.”

This idea is critical to understanding WFF's strategy right now—and how it's different from its previous approach. Originally, the hope behind the foundation’s investment in new schools operating independently of the traditional district system was that it would create a stimulating environment within which “more choices would generate more competition. Competition would catalyze systemic improvement.”

Things didn't turn out that way, as the foundation acknowledged last year in its 2020 K-12 Education Strategic Plan, which said that "choice is necessary, but schools of choice cannot stimulate systemic transformation and large-scale improvements on their own." Cities also needed to "create environments that support expanded choice and high-quality schools" by tackling a number of issues, including enrollment systems, transportation, funding, and how to provide families and other stakeholders with better information on schools. This insight is now driving WFF grantmaking across several areas. 

That big announcement last year of $250 million in new charter funding by WFF underscores one key part of its strategy—to focus on moving choice in those cities where progress is most likely. The foundation's target cities include Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. (See a full list here.) In each of these places, the foundation is aiming to increase the supply of high-quality schools, as well as the pipeline of talent for these schools, but also to shape the broader education environment. Dr. Manno talks of a “concerted effort to focus on market enabler strategies over the course of the next year." Such things include making it easier for parents to compare and access choice options, as well as ensuring that kids can physically get to the schools they want to attend.  

Another component of WFF's strategy is connecting with local constituencies that can support choice, fostering partnerships with community-based groups, religious leaders, and parents. Like so many other funders these days, WFF wants to align its work with what low-income communities really want and "meet local needs." 

Meanwhile, the foundation is also looking upstream to influence the state-level policies that govern many aspects of local K-12 systems. And even before Trump's win in November, and the selection of a pro-charter U.S. Secretary of Education in Betsy DeVos, Walton was aiming to step its efforts to sway national policy, too. Its efforts in this area include investing heavily in advocacy groups, like the Alliance for School Choice, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options. As well, it's keen to back communications work "to build awareness and support for high-quality choice."

Regarding the changed political landscape, Dr. Manno passed up a chance to celebrate the embrace of choice at the highest levels of the federal government, and instead said, “We see it as an opportunity to enlarge everyone’s ability to work with a variety of different groups on both sides of the political spectrum. Our aim will remain to support grantees that are more progressive, such as the Center for American Progress, to those that are more center-right." 

Another area of Walton's strategy worth flagging is its focus on backing innovation in K-12, such as "enrollment models that include both traditional and public charter schools," and new approaches to technical education, a growing interest among many funders. In February, the foundation invested $2.1 million to support and gauge the success of Atlanta Public Schools’ Turnaround Strategy. A portion of the money will help launch a “first-of-its-kind data dashboard,” providing parents with information concerning school options and quality, as we reported last month. 

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Nonprofits looking to get in on this stream of funding should keep in mind the criteria that WFF says it applies to projects it reviews—namely, that “it solves a problem, it applies the foundation’s theory of change, there’s potential for a breakthrough, the idea is transferable and its success can be tested objectively.” Groups that have scored grants under the innovation theme of WFF's work include the Character Lab, 4.0 Schools, and EdNavigator.

Finally, the Walton Family Foundation remains committed to backing research and evaluation, and on a fairly large scale. For example, the recent move to bolster what's happening in Atlanta included a $900,000 grant to Mathematica Policy Research to conduct a three-year evaluation of the APS turnaround program. Other research grants have funded the American Institute for Research, RAND, and academics at top universities. The foundation has also supported several research consortiums, such as D.C. EdCORE and the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

The Walton Family Foundation announced its new five-year K-12 strategy early last year, and so far, it's sticking to that blueprint. Dr. Manno doesn't see any major changes to WFF's plans anytime soon. Nevertheless, he says that WFF is constantly evolving, and “[we] always look forward to learning from those foundations we don’t work closely with on a regular basis.” 

The many critics of Walton's grantmaking are unlikely to find this review of its latest direction to be reassuring. The foundation has become more focused and determined to shape the overall K-12 landscape. In particular, its giving to shape public policy is likely to be even more energetic and effective than it has been in the past—especially given changes in Washington. 

For those who remain unpersuaded by the promise of school choice—and worry, in fact, that charters are damaging public school systems and hurting more kids than they help—the Walton Family Foundation's activities are now likely to seem even more alarming.