When Chicago Public Schools announced that it would close some of the lowest-performing schools in its most troublesome neighborhoods, it ignited a fierce debate over public education. What few noticed was the role of the one of the nation’s richest families — in the form of the Walton Family Foundation — helped put the plan into action. (See Walton Family Foundation: Grants for K-12 Education).
The Walton Family Foundation provided a $478,000 grant to the Children First Foundation (a non-profit that was set up by Chicago Public Schools), which helped Chicago Public Schools set up a series of meetings on the school-closing plan. The foundation took some heat from local opponents of the school closings, but the grant wasn’t unusual for the Waltons. In fact, their foundation has become one of the nation’s largest funders of education reform and the campaign for school choice.
With nearly $2 billion in assets, the foundation can afford to spend big. The Walton Family Foundation regularly contributes over $100 annually to education reform efforts. That funding goes to a wide variety of activities, from Boston to New Orleans to Los Angeles. The foundation looks for projects that will improve school quality or give families more choice over where to send their kids. (Read education program officer Sherman Whites' IP profile).
For example, the foundation’s faith in charter schools led it to invest $250,000 in Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, which will offer a "whole child" approach to education. The school will offer kindergarten through 2nd grade at first, gradually growing to a K-5 institution. The break-the-mold approach of an expeditionary learning school is right in line with the foundation’s focus.
But not all of the Walton Family Foundation’s grantees are doing hands-on work in the classroom. Lest the foundation miss the proverbial forest for the trees, it is also funding basic research and public policy advocacy meant to lay a scientific foundation and encourage public support for school choice.
For example, the foundation has lavished support on think tanks like the Barry Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research and the American Enterprise Institute in an effort to generate new and innovative reform ideas.
Other grantees get their hands dirty by lobbying legislatures or stumping for pro-reform political candidates. Over the last two years, the foundation has provided more than $4 million to 50CAN, Inc., an education reform organization that has earned the ire of some teacher’s unions. 50CAN launches state-based advocacy campaigns that focus on raising state standards and student assessment, giving principals more power over budgets and staffing, and expanding school choice.
Given its wide portfolio, the Walton Family Foundation sees lots of work to do in education reform — and it has the resources to back it.