What's So Interesting About This Walton Pledge for NYC Charter Schools?

 photo:  GagliardiImages/shutterstock

photo:  GagliardiImages/shutterstock

The Walton Family Foundation recently pledged to invest more than $2 million to create new charter schools in New York City.

"So what's new about that?" you might ask. "Walton is spending millions to create new charter schools everywhere." It's true that among K-12 funders, Walton is the best friend that charter schools can have. Since 1997, it's invested over $400 million to create and grow charter schools around the U.S., and has been expanding its giving on this front lately.

But what's interesting about this new $2.2 million gift is the type of charter schools the funder wants to support, as well as some of the partners involved. 

Walton's September 12 announcement said that it would strive to create new charters that aim to serve a socioeconomically diverse enrollment. The education news site Chalkbeat—also a Walton beneficiary—reported that the funder hopes to create seven new charter schools that enroll students from a mix of income backgrounds. The funder will also support researchers from the Century Foundation, Teachers College at Columbia University, and Temple University to study student outcomes at socioeconomically diverse charter schools.

Walton's emphasis on charters and other forms of school choice has not made the funder a favorite among progressive-leaning education reformers and advocates. And over the years, some of the foundation's toughest critics have been based at Teachers College. Earlier this year, we published an article about the funders who tend to support research at Teachers College—and that Walton was notably not one of them, and was unlikely ever to send major grants to this institution. Clearly, we were wrong. 

Related: Why Teachers College at Columbia U. is a Magnet for K-12 Grants

On the other hand, we've also noted that Walton's giving around charter schools is evolving, as this funder has come to believe that choice alone is not enough. Earlier this year, Bruno V. Manno, senior advisor for K-12 education at Walton, told Inside Philanthropy that choice by itself does not necessarily create educational quality. What matters, he said, "is the larger context within which people make choices." As part of its five-year strategic plan, Walton aims to shape the environment in its target cities to "support expanded choice and high-quality schools."

The plan also said that Walton would look for opportunities to support innovations and "novel school models." It affirmed that the foundation valued research and evaluation, saying it has a "responsibility to use evidence."

This new grant shows that Walton is putting its money where its mouth is, backing innovative charters in response to promising research. The foundation's press release said:

Students who attend mixed-income schools have higher test scores, are more likely to enroll in college and are less likely than peers in schools with similar poverty levels to drop out of college. Preliminary research on 21 mixed-income charter schools from Teachers College at Columbia University found that students in many of these schools outperform their traditional public school peers in English and math.

That's right: Walton is saying that this new funding is based on research from Teachers College—and never mind all that past work from TC questioning the effectiveness of charter schools and top Walton grantees like Teach for America. Evidently, this is not a funder that holds grudges. 

Of course, education policy researchers have said for years that family income is a significant predictor of educational success and that socioeconomic integration fosters success. Among those scholars who have long pushed for a greater focus on economic integration as a strategy to improve student outcomes is Century Foundation Senior Fellow Richard Kahlenberg, who has been called “the intellectual father of the economic integration movement” in K-12 schooling.

Kahlenberg and other researchers argue that when disadvantaged children who live in communities of concentrated poverty attend schools with classmates of predominantly similar backgrounds, achievement suffers. In contrast, when schools are racially and economically diverse, all students benefit. One study found that when the proportion of middle-class students in a school reaches about 30 percent, low-income children do better academically. What's more, these gains do not appear to come at the expense of the more affluent students, whose performance does not decline. Kahlenberg's research has concluded that students in socioeconomically integrated schools not only have higher achievement, as measured by standardized tests, but are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to enroll in college.

Despite these powerful points, Kahlenberg has often been a voice in the wilderness. Meanwhile, for various reasons, the charter movement—which has largely focused on improving education in poor cities—has created schools that mostly enroll students from low-income communities of color. A study last year by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that 70 percent of charter students have few white classmates and warned that “the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools."

Schools often are creatures of the neighborhoods within which they are located. Schools in poor neighborhoods—including charters—are often overwhelmingly attended by poor students, while schools in wealthy neighborhoods have enrollments that similarly reflect their surroundings. An intentional push for socioeconomic integration is one way to alter the choice environment. And it's significant that Walton is supporting this idea, both with money on the ground to create schools and funds for research. 

Walton's larger agenda, which appears to align with the views of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, will still be unsettling to some, especially those who harbor doubts about the efficacy of choice programs and charter schools. But anyone who watches this foundation closely knows that it continues to evolve, in part as a younger generation of Walton family members, who appear to be quite ideologically diverse, begins to exercise influence over its grantmaking.

RelatedAt Walton, Individual Family Members Direct a Large and Growing Pot of Funds