The End of the Charter School Era? Hardly. But a Key Charter Funder is Expanding its Agenda

 photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The Walton Family Foundation, a giant among the pro-charter education funders, recently announced its plans for $100 million in new grants. For readers familiar with this funder, the amount is likely far less surprising than the foundation’s announcement that it would make new room in its education giving to include traditional public schools.

In a report released in conjunction with the grant announcement, Walton conceded that charter schools could not be the only way forward. “To achieve the growth and diversity of options we seek, we cannot view public charter schools as our only path to new school creation,” the report said. “The sizable challenge in urban schools can’t be met with any single approach. Every family should be able to access a school that best meets their children’s needs.”

By the look of the grantees Walton announced, the bulk of the gifts will still go to charter schools, networks and the organizations that support them. However, a public school district and an organization that turns around struggling Catholic schools join the usual suspects on the list of grantees.

The shift comes as a growing number of funders move away from giving that focuses exclusively on charter schools and related strategies. The Gates Foundation, a longtime champion of charters and the education reform movement, recently made a major pivot to a new network-based giving approach that will support local efforts to improve student outcomes. 

At the same time, new funders on the scene, like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Ballmer Group, have shown little interest in taking sides in the charter versus district school debate. Other major new K-12 donors, like Charles Butt in Texas, are investing big in strengthening traditional public systems. It's not that leading philanthropists have turned against charters; many still believe deeply in such schools. Rather, the failure of this model to scale rapidly, or to have the sweeping competitive effects on traditional districts that proponents had hoped, seems to be prompting funders to focus more on improving existing school systems. Meanwhile, some public education funds supporting local district schools have found success selling philanthropists on the accountability they provide while raising money for districts.

Now, it looks like the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter movement’s most ardent supporters, could be preparing to open its coffers more widely to traditional public schools. $100 million isn't that much money for a funder that's aiming to invest a $1 billion in education over five years, with a good chunk of that going to charters, but even a small shift in Walton's rhetoric or funding is worth paying attention to given the importance of this funder on the K-12 scene.

It’s also worth noting that a new generation of Waltons has been stepping up its role in the family's philanthropy and one effect of this has been to diversify where the foundation's money is going. Many family members do their giving through the foundation’s special projects portfolio, which accounted for about one-third of the funder’s total giving in 2016. One of Sam and Helen Walton’s grandsons, James Walton, has shown a great interest in Montessori education, for example, and works closely with Trust for Learning, a funder collaborative focused on early childhood education.

While it's unclear whether the younger Waltons are pressing for a broader agenda on education, it is often the case that family foundations undergo major shifts in programming as a result of generational transitions. Simply put, the kids aren't always into the same issues or approaches as their parents. Often, they think quite differently about how to drive social change. And it's not uncommon for subsequent generations to hold more progressive views.

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In the spirit of looking beyond charter schools, the foundation plans to extend support to district and private schools that support accountability and autonomy. Indianapolis Public Schools and Partnership Schools are the two big beneficiaries of that expanded mission. Partnership Schools is an organization that turns around struggling Catholic schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools is, of course, the city’s public school district. Despite talk of opening Walton’s funding to traditional district schools, it was the only school district the foundation named as a grantee in its announcement.

Supporting the creation of new schools—whether charter, district or private—is a big focus of the grants. Reframe Labs and 4.0 Schools, which recruit and train school leaders to prepare them to open new schools, both got money as part of grants. NewSchools Venture Fund also is set to receive support.

The foundation also stressed expanding successful schools that serve special student populations or a diverse student body. Many of those grants will go to charter schools or networks that the foundation identified already doing that work, like the Bricolage Academy and Collegiate Academies in New Orleans.

Funds have also been allocated for scaling successful charter networks. This type of work has been the bread and butter of Walton’s education strategy for years. The message is clear. Though the foundation will expand funding to traditional public schools, education nonprofits and faith-based schools, the funder is still committed to scaling and spreading charter schools.

The grants to support this work are going to Building Excellent Schools, to train and recruit leaders to launch new charter schools, and the KIPP charter network, which runs schools around the country. Several other charter schools, networks and support organizations were included in the grants announcement, including Collegiate Academies and Bricolage Academy in New Orleans, the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition and the Charter Schools Growth Fund.

Scale is a concern for funders that back charter schools. Despite decades of support, the schools have had trouble reaching a size that would allow them to serve a significant portion of the country’s students. Around 7 percent of students across the country attend charter schools, although that ratio is far higher in many high-poverty cities and the number of students in charters keeps climbing every year, more than doubling over the past decade to over 3 million kids. 

That said, if a foundation wants to reach a significant number of students, district schools are still the best option, because right now, that’s where the vast majority of kids go to school.