May 7, 2014

NYT On Walton/Charters

By Bellwether

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Late to this, a lot of travel the past few weeks. But in case you missed it the The New York Times took a look at the Walton Family Foundation* and charter schools in a big front page story. As you might expect, an article with the words “Walton” and “charters” inspired strong feelings and accusations of bias. The critics of charters hated it because it didn’t give air time to the idea that the Walton family, collectively the nation’s wealthiest, is trying to enrich itself by giving away much of their money.  Some charter advocates didn’t like it either, for reasons that are less clear to me. For my part I thought the article was pretty fair and a good overview. The reporter, Motoko Rich, writes that,

Another, less trumpeted, distinction for DC Prep is the extent to which it — as well as many other charter schools in the city — relies on the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropic group governed by the family that founded Walmart.

This is the tip-off of what’s coming. This is only news if you don’t pay attention or don’t work in the sector. Walton’s instrumental role in supporting charter school advocacy, research, state charter school associations, and schools themselves is pretty well-known. And the specifics are no great secret, the foundation discloses its grants and grantees. But that’s the point, Rich wasn’t writing for those in the know but rather for a general audience. So it was pretty predictable, teachers union leaders say charters are destructive, parents and Walton officials argue the opposite. If there was value for insiders it was the further evidence that the gap between sloganeering and evidence is growing.

What was unfortunate, in my view, was that the issues of charter quality and what Walton is pushing on there got buried. To me the evolution of the foundation’s theory of action and their engagement on quality as well as supply and demand issues are the most interesting parts of their story right now (and belies the idea that the foundation is impervious to criticism).

Also, the literary conceit of linking what the foundation is doing to the debates over expansion of WalMart stores is obvious. But it can inadvertently signal to readers that there is some actual linkage. You hear that a lot about family foundations – that they’re advancing some business interest. To be clear, Rich didn’t imply a linkage but others do and it’s a serious charge – in fact an allegation of illegal activity – to toss around lightly. Corporate foundations and family foundations are different animals and there are rules governing what both can and cannot do – as Pearson found out a few years ago when its corporate foundation ran into trouble for blurring the lines between philanthropy and business. One of those places where precise language matters.

Bottom line: Given the tenor of the debate I have little doubt there will be a hit piece soon on Walton, charters, or both for everyone to argue about. But this article wasn’t it.

*Walton funds some of Bellwether’s work, for instance this analysis on teacher effectiveness and work we do on charter school policy.

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