Is Market-Based Education Reform Compatible with Accountability?

Written by: Lisa Ranghelli

Date: October 13, 2015

In May, NCRP released our Philamplify assessment, Walton Family Foundation: How Can This Market-Oriented Grantmaker Advance Community-Led Solutions for Greater Equity? The report, written by Gita Gulati-Partee, found that Walton Family Foundation (WFF) had used market-based strategies in its environmental grantmaking to positive effect, but stakeholders questioned the foundation’s success in advancing equity in education through market approaches.

Several weeks later, another report on the foundation came out. Brought to You by Wal-Mart? How the Walton Family Foundation’s Ideological Pursuit Is Damaging Charter Schooling, was written by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and In the Public Interest (ITPI) as part of their pro-public school Cashing in on Kids project.

The latter report focuses exclusively on WFF’s education grantmaking, which comprised 54 percent of its total grant spending in 2014, topping $200 million. Brought to You by Wal-Mart? argues that WFF has a “radical agenda” that:

“Has taken the U.S. charter school movement away from education quality in favor of a strategy focused only on growth. Under the guise of ‘choice’ to improve schools for low-income children, WFF has supported the unregulated growth of a privatized education industry – quantity over quality, and ‘freedom’ over regulation. It’s been lucrative for some, but a disaster for many of the nation’s most vulnerable students and school districts.”

In the interview process for our Philamplify report, WFF’s K-12 Education Program Director Marc Sternberg spoke about the foundation’s market-based strategies, saying, “Education is the set of work we can support that will most directly end the cycle of poverty and change the trajectory of young people’s lives.” We took him at his word, but Philamplify concluded that WFF’s strategy was not necessarily succeeding in serving marginalized students effectively. Moreover, the strategy was very top-down, without seeking input and collaboration with existing parent, student and teacher organizations, as reflected in our Philamplify video about WFF’s grantmaking in Louisiana.

Brought to You by Wal-Mart? goes into much greater detail about the public policy and advocacy grants made by WFF, which totaled $80 million in 2014 – more than the foundation spent on creating new charter schools that year. The report also looks at political campaign contributions of individual Walton family members. It finds that Walton grantees and family members have spent millions of dollars fighting attempts to enact standards to govern charter schools at the state level. Often, charters operate with less transparency than other publicly-funded institutions. With the lack of adequate regulation, many charters have been the locus of fraud, malfeasance, safety problems and inequitable practices ranging from unfair admissions and discipline policies to a failure to provide free or low-cost meals for eligible children.

For example, AFT and ITPI’s report notes that in 2011 the WFF-funded California Charter Schools Association helped prevent a law that would have required charter schools to comply with safety regulations such as having a reliable fire alarm system. Subsequently, a Pasadena charter school was shut down by the local fire department for fire code violations and no fire alarm system, causing “imminent danger” to its students.

I believe that WFF wants low-income students to get a good education and escape poverty, and that its leadership believes charter schools are the best avenue to achieve that goal. During NCRP’s recent Philamplify debate on education reform, Deborah McGriff, managing director of New Schools Venture Fund, a WFF grantee, spoke passionately about how, after decades trying to improve public schools from within the traditional system, she concluded that she could best serve low-income students of color by supporting high-quality charters. I have no doubt that her intent is sincere and that her commitment to equity is deep. Her results have been impressive.

Yet, I remain perplexed by the advocacy agenda of WFF grantees. If WFF wants charters to be of high quality, why won’t the foundation and its grantees promote accountability and transparency standards across all the chartering states, instead of opposing them?

I hope this question of how to ensure quality and accountability across the K-12 education system remains at the forefront of our minds as we continue to debate the effectiveness of market-oriented reform strategies in education.

Lisa Ranghelli is director of foundation assessment at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter and join the #Philamplify conversation!