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The Walton Foundation is one of the biggest players in the education philanthropy world, having poured some $1.3 billion in K-12 education over the last two decades largely to support charter schools and fuel the “school choice” movement. But foundation honchos aren’t exactly satisfied with the results of their work and now they are using a new investment strategy to make a broader impact. For people who like the foundation’s philosophy, that’s good news. For those who think the foundation works against public education, it’s scary.

[Why are out-of-state billionaires putting big money into Louisiana’s board of education elections?]

A paper recently released (see below) titled “Investing in Change: The Walton Family Foundation Charts a New Course” looks at what the foundation has — and hasn’t — accomplished in its effort to fulfill what foundation K-12 Program Director Marc Sternberg calls its “moral obligation” to provide families with high-quality school choices. It quotes Walton Family Foundation Executive Director Buddy Philpot, who wrote in the foundation’s 2014 annual report released this year:

We know that empowering parents and students with options works, but now we want to do more. We have learned that while choice is vital, it is not enough.

Choice isn’t enough? So what is? Apparently dismantling traditional public school systems and creating collections of charter schools across cities.  The report, written by Michelle Wisdom and published by Grantmakers for Education (a national network of hundreds of education philanthropies) says:

There are a lot of similarities between the Walton Family Foundation’s approach and what has come to be called a “Portfolio Strategy”— a concept researched and supported by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Portfolio Strategy identifies the entire city as the unit of change with respect to school reform, and tasks education and civic leaders with developing a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools. These systems prioritize school autonomy, parental empowerment, and system leader oversight and responsibility for accountability.

Wisdom’s report points to Walton’s involvement in cities with big charter presences, including New Orleans, where nearly all of the schools are charters, and D.C., where nearly half of students attend charters. These are hailed as successes in school reform. In the section about D.C., the report goes so far as to credit charter schools with contributing to  “dramatic improvements” in the traditional public school system, a statement that doesn’t take into consideration how demographic changes have improved D.C. school results. D.C. schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson contests the notion too.

There’s another part of the report that begs parsing. The report notes that the foundation realizes that it has not engaged communities as it has pushed school choice on them. It says:

One area where the foundation has received criticism is in the area of community engagement. It has been accused of  having a top-down approach that does not adequately address the needs and desires of parents, local advocacy groups and community groups. This is an issue the foundation is grappling with. “The provision of choice, and the publication of data on school performance, has sometimes had little impact, especially in districts where reform lacks adequate local ownership, community and wider civic involvement, and parent engagement,” Bruno Manno notes. He identifies two levers in engaging local partners and communities more thoroughly: 1) building an active coalition of supporters, and 2) cultivating local advocacy partners. “We need a local and civic base of support for the work that’s going on. The work we support requires a stable constituency to be advocates for schools over time. There is a political dimension as well, the community and families need to understand what options are available.”

Let’s review: After 20 years, the foundation realizes that its top-down approach doesn’t adequately address the needs and desires of parents, local advocacy groups and community groups. Now it wants to engage local partners and communities — not, apparently to ask what they actually want in their communities but to build “a local and civic base of support for the work that’s going on.”

Another surprising finding in the report is that the foundation actually considers itself to be a  neutral party in the school reform battles. It says:

The Walton Family Foundation theory of change has led it to support innovative and autonomous traditional public schools, new and existing individual charter schools and charter management organizations, private schools, locally-based education nonprofits and national advocacy and school reform groups across the United States.

The foundation sees its strategy as agnostic with regard to sector (public charter schools, traditional public schools, private schools). “The foundation’s investment strategy is clear: Schools thrive when they have autonomy, are chosen by parents, and are embedded in systems of good governance and accountability,” says Senior Program Officer Fawzia Ahmed. “When we invest in citywide systems, we invest regardless of sector.”

The foundation’s funding history includes a significant amount of support for charter schools, however. In fact, roughly two-thirds of the Education Program’s investments support the growth of a high-quality charter sector in some way. This seeming preference for charter schools is in line with the foundation’s theory of change that requires change agents, like new, high-quality charter schools, to increase competition in citywide school systems and to raise community expectations of what is possible in high-need areas and with students who face significant challenges.

As teacher Mercedes Schneider writes about the report on her Deutsch29 blog,

The Waltons do not see themselves as buying up democracy in order to shape it into the Image of Walton.