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Why Walton Has Stopped Funding Milwaukee

Ohanian Comment:
In 2000, Howard Fuller founded a nonprofit, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a voucher delivery system for poor children. The organization has received many millions from the bedfellow foundations: Bradley,Walton, and Bill and Melinda Gates.

In 2011, Howard Fuller received the John T. Walton Champions for School Choice Award.

Now, the Walton Family Foundation has announced that it's moving on to locations that are more "ripe" for their branding. For "ripe" read will do anything for money.

Ripe, riper, rotten.

Reader Comment: "Ripe" is the operative word here. It is not that Walton's have not accomplished their goals, it is just the opposite.

Besides New Orleans, Milwaukee, and now the entire state are going to be open to the voucher and charter swindle, mission accomplished, time to move on.

Walton is now moving on to places where they can accomplish their real goal: destroying public schools and teachers' unions, places more "ripe" to their brand of social engineering.

Borsuk's facile analysis here, that Milwaukee as been reticent to change is 180 degrees wrong. The Milwaukee school board has implemented every hair brained scheme that the Gates, Scaife, Bradley and any other right wing foundation that has waived a dollar around.

And guess what? now that 40% of Milwaukee kids go to a charter or voucher school with the cap soon to be lifted there has been ZERO evidence that they have done a better than public schools.

Now they move on to do their damage in other lands. Good riddance.

Reader Comment: Once Walton realized schools can't solve poverty, the decision was made to pull up their skirts and run.
They didn't want to wind up with results data that would leave them red-faced. Not with so much profit at stake.

The whole privatization/public school demonization thing is a scam meant to ultimately shift more of the K-12 education cost burden onto families themselves.
Wake up people.
Hungry children seldom make the best students.

Reader Comment; Translation: They discovered it requires resolving underlying poverty to improve the "educational dilemma" of big cities. We know their stand on wealth distribution and opportunity.

by Alan J. Borsuk
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"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.

L.S. Hall
Inside Philanthropy

More than a decade ago, Milwaukee was ground zero of the education reform movement. Starting with a controversial private school voucher program launched in 1990, Wisconsin’s largest city went on to embrace not only vouchers, but charter schools and a series of reform initiatives in the Milwaukee Public Schools, one of the lowest-performing in the nation.

The Walton Family Foundation has been at the center of much of that work. Over the last decade, the funder has lavished more than $30 million in grants on school reform efforts in Milwaukee, supporting such organizations as Teach For America and Schools That Can Milwaukee, a nonprofit that promotes innovation and reform in private, charter, and traditional public schools.

But after years of such commitment, Walton is stepping back from Milwaukee. The funder announced it was redirecting its education grant-making activities to "places that we believe are most ripe for improving our education system."

So, why is Walton pulling back from the city that made school reform famous? And what does this decision tell us about the urban ed philanthropy broadly?

Walton’s decision stems, at least in part, from its dissatisfaction with underwhelming results after years of reform efforts and policy changes in Milwaukee. The voucher program is more than 20 years old, and the city's K-12 landscape contains traditional public schools, charters, and private schools that receive tax dollars in the form of the aforementioned vouchers. Yet, even the pro-reform American Enterprise Institute concedes that these changes in education policy have produced few tangible results. The needle has barely moved on student achievement and high school graduation levels, and performance by low-income students continues to lag behind others.

A look at Walton's past grant-making in Milwaukee shows a clear drop in support. In 2011, the funder gave $5.2 million to education organizations in Milwaukee. A year later, that total dropped to around $4 million. In 2013, Walton's support was even lower, totaling only $2.5 million. Grant totals for 2014 have not yet been released.

Alan J. Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and policy at Marquette University's School of Law who has written widely about education policy in Milwaukee, sees the Walton action as part of a larger pattern of funders who enter the city's school reform battle with enthusiasm before growing frustrated at the slow pace of change, then taking their ball and going home. Borsuk points out that some big players in the education reform game, such as the KIPP charter network, have avoided Milwaukee entirely.

Meanwhile, AEI points out, other cities have overtaken Milwaukee’s spotlight as leading centers of urban education reform. Funders that once focused on Milwaukee have increasingly turned their attention to New Orleans, Denver, Washington, and other cities.

The decision by Walton and other funders to reduce their involvement in Milwaukee is, on some level, a surprise, considering the political environment in Madison, where Gov. Scott Walker is now beginning a second term. Walker supports school choice programs, such as charters and vouchers. He also champions right to work laws and has acted to reduce the power of public sector unions, including those representing teachers. Despite state-level actions, however, entrenched factions on both sides of the school reform question at the local level have stymied the kind of systemic changes that Walton and other funders have hoped for.

All of which raises a question: If the favorite tools of ed reform funders--school choice and a bludgeoning of teachers unions--can't raise student achievement in Milwaukee, despite boatloads of cash and helpful politicians, where can they work?

The Walton decision does not leave education reform in Milwaukee without its advocates. The locally based Bradley Foundation continues to be a strong supporter of the city’s voucher program, as well as its charter schools. However, other cities experimenting with new approaches to K-12 schooling may be looking at Milwaukee and asking themselves if their communities will suffer similar fates if funders are dissatisfied with the pace of reforms.

— Alan J. Borsuk and L.S. Hall
MilwaukeeInside Philanthropy




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