Not Just Charter Schools: A Look at a Big Walton K-12 Give Close to Home

photo:  BlurryMe /shutterstock

photo: BlurryMe/shutterstock

Arkansas has a poor reputation when it comes to offering students a quality education. In its annual national report card on schools, Education Week recently gave the state a C-, placing it among the near the bottom of its rankings.

Whether Arkansas deserves that grade or not, the Walton Family Foundation is looking to help schools do better in its home state.

The foundation is best known for supporting charter schools and school choice efforts across the country. But as we often stress, WFF is involved in much more than just charter schools. Its grantmaking also includes extensive giving for environmental conservation and the arts, as well as a grab bag of issues that interest a third generation of Walton family members who are becoming more active givers.

In addition, Walton has a big focus on Northwest Arkansas. Last year, it made nearly $50 million in grants in its home region, backing a wide range of nonprofits.  

In a new local effort, the foundation recently made a three-year, $10 million grant to create an academy designed to improve the effectiveness of early-career teachers in Arkansas.

The grant will establish the Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity, a training, research and evaluation center at the University of Arkansas whose purpose will be to provide high-poverty schools with high-quality educators.

Walton has a long history of backing teacher recruitment and training, but the lion’s share of its funding in this area has gone to Teach for America, an organization closely allied with the charter school movement. 

This is a different kind of venture, one hatched at a local university and piloted by academics. Tom Smith, a professor of special education, and Gary Ritter, 21st century chair in education policy (which was endowed by WFF), wrote the proposal and will be responsible for staffing the academy. But Jared Henderson, who has led Teach for America's branch in Arkansas, has also been involved in the project.

During the three years of the grant, the academy will recruit about 150 to 200 licensed career teachers who will receive intensive training during the summer months and extensive mentoring throughout the school year.

“The academy will provide high-quality educators for struggling, high-poverty schools,” Smith said. “We conducted some focus group research and found that teachers and school districts are interested in this program. This could really transform how teachers and administrators are prepared for these schools.”

The academy’s curricula will follow language established by the U.S. Department of Education, under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that allows states to create outcomes-based training programs for educators based on innovative best practices and be responsive to the needs identified by local school districts.

We’ve written in the past about what ESSA, only signed into law two years ago, might mean for K-12 philanthropy. It's still early to say. But certainly, it opens the door for a range of initiatives involving foundation money, as do new education policies emerging in various states.

There are obvious opportunities for local universities to get in on this action, especially around teacher preparation, where many state schools have a long (and sometimes mixed) track record.

"This program meets one of university's eight guiding priorities of further meeting our mission to serve all of Arkansas," Ritter said. "The university has always done an excellent job of providing high-quality educators for the northwest region. However, this program will enable us to better serve the students in low-income communities across the state." For those who might wonder if charter schools will be main the beneficiaries of the initiative (this being Walton money, after all), Rittner said that the effort addresses “traditional public schools." 

The academy will be housed on the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions, which is home to the Arkansas Teacher Corps and the IMPACT Arkansas Fellowship for administrators—both also supported by the Walton Family Foundation. The University of Arkansas was founded in 1872 and includes ten schools and colleges. It’s received many millions of dollars from the Walton family over the years.

Just to be clear, charter schools do a remain a top priority of WFF. Since 1992, the foundation has supported a quarter of the 6,700 charter schools created in the U.S., and it’s doubled down on this commitment in recent years.

As we reported, the foundation in 2016 announced a $250 million initiative to help charter schools in 17 cities expand their facilities and to build new ones. The goal was to add another 250,000 seats by 2027. More broadly, over a five-year period, WFF plans to spend $1 billion advancing its education priorities.