Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

March 1, 2015

Walton Family Foundation Discouraged About Education Privatization in Milwaukee

Filed under: Privatization,Waltons — millerlf @ 11:13 am

In a February 28th article, Alan Borsuk reports on the announcement by the Walton Family Foundation that they will be pulling back from investing in “school reform” initiatives in Milwaukee.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The Walton’s pay their workers substandard wages, benefits and healthcare while implementing discriminatory policies in their workplaces. Yet the Walton Foundation’s claim is to save the children of the very people they exploit. This is the family that is wealthier than the bottom 42% of all Americans combined.

What is their education agenda? Dismantle public education. It is not a coincidence that the “reforms” funded by the Waltons are the same as those advanced by ALEC, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council.

Is the intention of the Waltons the liberation of poor communities and communities of color? The truth is that they are the power, the status quo, that must concede for progress to occur.

Borsuk article:

Walton Family Foundation stepping back from Milwaukee education scene

Feb. 28, 2015 MJ Sentinel Alan Borsuk

“We have decided to make grants where we can have the highest impact, which means working in the places that we believe are most ripe for improving our education system.”

Read that sentence and you know that it isn’t coming from someone happy with the education landscape in Milwaukee.

In fact, the statement is from the Walton Family Foundation, the huge philanthropy of the family of the founders of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The foundation is pulling back from a long, strong commitment to “education reform” in Milwaukee.

The Walton decision is important in itself. The foundation has given several million dollars a year to Milwaukee schools and education organizations.

But it is also important in a broader context. Walton is joining a significant list of national players who in one way or another have entered the Milwaukee scene and then departed or reduced their interest.

I came, I got involved, I got frustrated, I didn’t see much change, I moved on. That has been the summary of a parade of those who have found Milwaukee a difficult environment for change.

And there are others (the large and impressive KIPP network of charter schools comes to my mind first) that have declined even to try Milwaukee for similar reasons.

Fifteen years ago, Milwaukee was called by some “ground zero” for school reform. Now, you rarely see national attention to Milwaukee education, at least not for positive reasons. The Walton decision underscores that.

It’s a curious thing, since you would think the current political dynamics in state government would make this a time for enthusiasm among private school choice, charter schools and innovations in the structure of urban education. In some ways that’s true, but in surprising ways, it is not.

In short, I’d attribute this to the entrenched nature of the way we do things, the continuing strength of those opposed to the things Walton favors and missteps by those who favor what Walton favors.

Milwaukee was among a handful of cities targeted in recent years by Walton. Walton had a fairly short list of Milwaukee grants, but they were generally large — frequently in the mid six figures.

It supported the launch or major facility improvements of several religious and charter schools in Milwaukee, in several cases to the tune of $375,000 each.

And it provided major funding to groups such as School Choice Wisconsin, Milwaukee Charter School Advocates and Teach for America in Milwaukee.

According to Walton reports, in 2012 and 2013 combined, it gave $740,000 to Schools That Can Milwaukee, a nonprofit that works on innovation and improvement in all three major sectors (private, charters and Milwaukee Public Schools). Grants for 2014 have not been reported yet.

Abby Andrietsch, executive director of Schools That Can, said the Walton decision, “is definitely hard news and it’s not news that we wanted to get.

“But we have strong community support and we have strong impact data that is getting stronger. We feel very confident that with that data to tell our story and show our impact, we’re going to be able to engage the community going forward.”

‘Wake-up call’
She called the Walton step “a wake-up call” for Milwaukee on the need for cooperation on school improvement.

It is overstating things to say Walton is pulling out of Milwaukee. Let’s call it a big pull back. Walton will make few, if any, new grants to schools or school networks here.

In some cases, it will phase out its support over two years. And the Arkansas-based foundation will no longer have a staff person living in Milwaukee.

What will Walton do?

The statement from foundation spokeswoman Daphne Davis Moore said, “We remain committed to Milwaukee families and are transitioning our focus to improve the environment at the state level in Wisconsin to allow families to have access to more high quality school options.”

Translate that as involvement in Madison in promoting parental choice in general, school accountability aimed at closing or making major changes in low-success schools, and probably “recovery district” ideas that would make more MPS schools into charters.

Howard Fuller, the Milwaukee choice advocate, has had a close relationship with Walton, and organizations he is involved with have received Walton grants.

“From what I see, they’re going to continue to be supportive of the advocacy work in the state of Wisconsin,” Fuller said. “What I hope we can do is create a better overall environment in Milwaukee for creating great schools for kids. Hopefully we can do it not only in a way that Walton would come back, but maybe we can attract others to see Milwaukee as a place that people want to be.”

The Walton decision comes at a time when there are some positive indications of cooperation among the often-warring factions in Milwaukee education. There are a small number of efforts where people have worked together, and efforts to promote a more cooperative environment have been occurring behind the scenes.

There even may be a new player coming to the scene to fill at least some of the gap being left by the Walton decision.

Abigail Schumwinger, who was the Walton representative in Milwaukee until a month ago, said she is beginning to work for a group developing a fund that will make start-up and capital grants to private schools.

Called the Drexel Fund, it will formally kick off this summer and it has a goal of raising $30 million in the next five years. Schumwinger said Drexel expects to focus on six states, including Wisconsin.

Whether you like or dislike the causes Walton has supported, there are messages in the foundation’s decision.

To me, two stand out: Frustration has consequences. And it’s not too late to think working together in pursuit of more high quality schools in Milwaukee could be worth it.

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. Reach him at alan.borsuk@marquette.edu.

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