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Report Criticizes Walton Foundation Funding Methods for Charter Schools

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By Denisa R. Superville. Cross-posted from the District Dossier blog.

The American Federation of Teachers and In the Public Interest issued a report on Tuesday heavily criticizing The Walton Family Foundation's "market-driven" charter school "ideology" that they say has rapidly expanded the number of charter schools, without the accompanying transparency and accountability measures. That "unregulated" growth, they said, has resulted in fraud and mismanagement in the sector.

The report, "Brought to You by Wal-Mart? How the Walton Family Foundation's Ideological Pursuit is Damaging Charter Schooling," was accompanied by an 11-point "accountability agenda" that proposes specific steps the charter school sector should take to engender "a renewed commitment to the fundamental democratic principles of transparency, accountability, equal opportunity and stewardship of public funds."

The plan asks the Arkansas-based foundation—which has given millions to charter school start-ups and to lobbying efforts on behalf of charter schools and voucher programs—to ask schools and grantees that receive its funds to commit to certain ideals in areas of accountability, protecting neighborhood schools, protecting taxpayer funds, and ensuring high quality education for every child.  (Education Week receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of parent-empowerment issues.)

Under accountability, for example, the AFT and In the Public Interest, a watchdog group that is skeptical of charters, call for requiring companies and organizations that run charter schools to make board meetings public in the same way that traditional public schools are required to do, release financial information on annual budgets and contracts, and allow regular state audits.

The two groups also call for an analysis on how charter schools will impact neighborhood public schools before any charter school is opened in an area, and ensuring that public schools would not lose money when charter schools open in the vicinity. And they urge that all teachers in "taxpayer-funded schools"—meaning both charters and traditional public schools—be subjected to the same certification requirements.

Their plan calls for barring charter schools from using public funds on marketing and advertising; halting expansion if new schools do not make headway on tamping down on fraud and mismanagement; and barring family members and board members from financially profiting from their schools.

In a conference call on the report, Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, said the report was about accountability for the public dollars that go to schools that receive Walton Family Foundation funds. 

"Are they being transparent with that?" she said. "This is not a private corporation where you can wheel and deal in any way you wish. And that's what this report is about."

Weingarten noted that the charter school idea has roots in the union, and that the union itself runs a charter school in New York City.

Foundation Responds

But some charter school supporters pushed back against the charges that the sector is not accountable or transparent, noting that they were already working on areas mentioned in the 11-point plan and that some parts in the plan were simply non-starters.

The foundation itself, while not specifically addressing the charges of fraud and mismanagement leveled in the report, defended its work funding accountability measures in the charter sector.

Daphne Moore, a spokeswoman for the Walton Family Foundation, noted in a statement that the foundation, for decades, has worked to improve K-12 education, particularly for those in poverty. 

She said the foundation has supported accountability for all schools and has been behind such efforts in places like the District of Columbia, where it worked with the charter school board on performance standards for charter schools, and in California by supporting the California Charter Schools Association to establish an accountability framework for renewing and replicating charter schools.

"We believe that if we expand the number of quality schools to choose from, including public charter, traditional public, and private schools, we will significantly improve student outcomes for all students, across all schools," Moore said in a statement. "We have a track record of working with all stakeholders, including teachers and school administrators, to find the best solutions to ensure our nation's children receive a high-quality education.

Moore also pointed to a pledge, "National Public Charter Schools Commitment to Quality," which was signed by 39 state- and city-based public charter school support organizations at the National Charter Schools Conference in New Orleans this week.

In the conference call with reporters, AFT and In the Public Interest officials touted a petition on Moveon.org that was released to accompany the report, to tell  "the Walton Family Foundation that it's time to start advocating for a charter schools accountability agenda that includes parental input into how the schools are run, and that protects taxpayers and students from companies that are just looking to cash in on public schools." (By Wednesday morning, 10, 314 individuals had signed the petition.)

Some in the charter school sector disputed the thrust of report, saying that the AFT "cherry-picked" the facts, and that the sector was very much focused on accountability—much of it led by the charter school authorizer associations and driven by the Walton Family Foundation.

"Honestly, I was surprised by this report, in that it makes an attack on the Walton Family Foundation by asserting that they don't support quality in the charter space, when there are facts that directly refute that, which the report and the AFT ignore," said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Richmond said the Walton Family Foundation has given $18.3 million to his group over the last 15 years to work on some of the same issues for which the AFT was criticizing the foundation: quality, accountability, and transparency.

"Walton has made a long significant investment in charter school quality in this country," he said.  "We are in the midst of a campaign right now that is focused on improving charter school laws around the country to promote more oversight, more transparency, more clarity around academics, and Walton is our biggest supporter; so it was rather astounding to me that someone could assert with a straight face that Walton does not support transparency in the charter school [sector]."

Richmond said that the 11-point accountability agenda that accompanied the report includes a number of points he agreed with and a number of points that his group is already working on. Those include the points on access to public information, financial transparency, and issues of conflict-of-interest for charter school board members and financial audits.

Jed Wallace, the president of the California Charter Schools Association (which was cited in the report for having opposed some public schools regulations in California), also took exception to various points in the 11-point plan, including a proposal that public funds not be used for marketing and advertising, and ensuring that neighborhood schools do not lose money when charter schools open.

Wallace said that in recent years there has been greater accountability for results in the charter sector—as evidenced by the higher number of closures for schools that are not meeting benchmarks. The California Charter Schools Association has been advocating for minimum performance standards and actively calls for the closure of schools that do meet those performance benchmarks, Wallace said.   

And, he said, recent reports from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) bear out that accountability in the sector is getting better, an improvement over the organization's 2009 report that found that charter students performed somewhat worse in reading and substantially worse in math than their district school counterparts.

In California, he said, about two-thirds of the new schools are replications, and those schools are doing well academically. 

"I would argue that on the closure side, we're making sure that what is not working is closing, and in terms of what is opening, we have a higher and higher percentage of our newly-opened schools proving to be successful," he said.

California charters schools have to be audited every year, and he agrees with the disclosures on board members' conflict-of-interest. But, he said, regulations must be carefully considered.

While he agrees with having laws requiring disclosures of board members' conflicts, the charter association cannot support the California proposal if the law applies to the charter schools in the same way that it does traditional school districts.

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