The Billion Dollar Investment
Charter proponents, most notably the Walton Family Foundation, contribute large amounts of money to expand charter schools in select cities around the nation. The foundation says it has invested more than $385 million in new charter schools over the past two decades and, earlier this year, announced that it plans to give $1 billion over five years to support charters and school-choice initiatives.
In announcing its $1 billion strategic plan to support new and existing charter schools, the foundation has said the money would go to four initiatives – investing in cities, supporting the school-choice movement, innovation and research. It identified 13 cities nationwide where it said it can have the biggest impact, including Los Angeles and Oakland. Los Angeles already has more charter schools than any other school district in the United States and Oakland has the highest percentage of charters for any district in California.
“If funders like Eli Broad or the Walton Family Foundation were truly committed to education equality,” says John Rogers, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, “they could have taken steps to simply support reducing class size or after-school [activities] or summer programs that would provide more educational opportunity, rather than try to invest in strategies to undermine the capacities of a school district. The primary aim is to dismantle the school district as a whole and replace it with a new way of doing public education.”
Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University, agrees. “They believe in privatization,” he says. Miron co-authored a critical study, sponsored last year by the National Education Policy Center, that focused on the charter industry’s funding policies.
But why do so many charter advocates embrace privatization?
“I don’t think it’s about the money,” says Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “They like charters in part because they decrease the publicness of public schools. They want a system much more based on market forces because they don’t trust democracy.”
Netflix founder and prominent charter advocate Reed Hastings seemed to confirm this view when, during a 2014 convention of the California Charter Schools Association, he decried publicly elected school boards for their alleged lack of stability in governance. He then praised the closed-governance charter model of private boards whose “board members pick new board members.”
But should the private sector be in charge of public education?
“No,” says Welner. “The public sector should be in charge of public education. Public education should be under democratic control.”
Welner is not alone in his view.
“The radical agenda of the Walton family,” says a damning report issued last year by the American Federation of Teachers and In the Public Interest, “has taken the U.S. charter school movement away from education quality in favor of a strategy focused only on growth. It’s been lucrative for some, but a disaster for many of the nation’s most vulnerable students and school districts.”
The direct funding of charter schools is only one of several strategies charter advocates are using to influence public opinion and school policies. They also fund academic studies and “grassroots” organizations such as Parent Revolution, along with powerful political lobbies such as the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). Just as important, they contribute millions of dollars to school board elections in order to replace those perceived to be anti-charter with pro-charter board members, as seen in recent elections in Los Angeles and Oakland, two cities where charter-expansion partisans have been particularly aggressive.
Reshaping School Boards
“I don’t see myself as just pro-charter,” Ref Rodriguez tells Capital & Main. “It’s a little more nuanced. My focus is on quality.” In 2015 Rodriguez ran as a pro-charter candidate for a seat on Los Angeles’ Board of Education. Rodriguez admits he received a lot of money from charter advocates, but says that he is not beholden to them. In any case, he handily defeated his incumbent opponent, Bennett Kayser, in a bitterly-fought election that gave charter school proponents a key ally on the seven-member board. Even so, Rodriguez says he does not support Broad’s plan, citing what he believes is its flawed data relating to the plan’s claims about long charter-school waiting lists.
The election of pro-charter members to school boards has become a major goal of the charter-school movement. The boards make critical decisions involving charters – from hiring school superintendents to creating policy about whether, and how many, charter schools should be authorized and renewed within a district.
In last year’s Los Angeles Unified School District board race a CCSA political action committee spent more than $2 million, including roughly half a million dollars in negative ads, to defeat Kayser, a onetime teacher and school administrator who was generally opposed to opening new charter schools. By contrast, Rodriguez was the cofounder of a charter school network, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, and a former CCSA board member.
In addition to money spent by the CCSA PAC, Rodriguez received contributions from Eli Broad and his wife Edythe, from Laurene Powell Jobs (the widow of Steve Jobs and a wealthy charter advocate), from a PAC affiliated with the StudentsFirst education advocacy group, which was founded by Michelle Rhee, and from numerous employees and officials at various charter schools.
The United Teachers Los Angeles union spent about $800,000 in support of Kayser.
Jason Mandell, CCSA’s director of Advocacy Communications, says that the charter lobby’s political action arm gives money in an effort to ensure that charter schools get a fair hearing on school boards.
“We hope for school board members who understand charter schools and are supportive of their growth, or at least the high performing ones,” he says. “There are folks who are opposed to charter schools, period, regardless of their impact on students. We think the communities are better served by having school board members not so ideologically extreme and who are happy to support charters when they are performing well and helping kids. School boards make real decisions on charter schools.”
Molding Public Opinion
In an effort to shape public opinion and sway policy makers, the Walton Family Foundation awards research grants to professors studying charter schools and other educational initiatives. The grants, totaling millions of dollars, have funded academic studies at Harvard University, MIT, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame. These studies are then quoted in the mainstream press or in the media that pro-charter philanthropists directly control – creating an echo chamber that is used by the charter movement to expand the numbers of charter schools across the United States.
These institutions officially say that they maintain control of research findings and that the studies don’t always reflect the views of the funders. A study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), funded by the Walton foundation, concluded last year, for example, that students who take courses at online charter schools make significantly less academic progress than students at traditional public schools.
Nonetheless, the funding of academic studies raises concerns. “It’s part of the war of ideas,” says UCLA’s Rogers.
That war of ideas certainly includes funding education coverage in the media.
The Los Angeles Times’ “Education Matters” initiative to expand education coverage, for instance, is receiving $800,000 from a group of foundations, including the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. And the respected Education Week, among others, has received funding ($250,000 in 2014) to cover “school choice” issues from the Walton Family Foundation.
Last January a New York-based charter school advocacy website called The Seventy Four, which has received funding from the Walton Family Foundations took over LA School Report, a respected online publication devoted to covering Los Angeles public schools. The Seventy Four – named for America’s 74 million school-age children – is owned by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, a high-profile charter-school advocate and a key player in a lawsuit to end teacher tenure protections in New York.
The Seventy Four’s takeover of LA School report is part of a pattern in which prominent charter school proponents, such as philanthropist Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, seek to influence the public and school policy makers by acquiring or investing in education coverage. The move, which involved replacing LA School Report’s editor, came months after a group led by Broad proposed that half of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s students be enrolled in charter schools within the next eight years. (Broad did not respond to requests for comments for this article.)
“The direct investment in media companies is [meant] to sway public opinion,” says John Rogers. “[Charter proponents] are trying to win the public relations campaign so they can move forward their political agenda with as little resistance as possible.”
Overall, the Walton Family Foundation spent more than $80 million to “shape public policy,” according to its 2014 grant report, the latest publicly available figures. In addition to its foundation’s grants to Education Week, the Walton family also funds two media outlets that are generally perceived as somewhat progressive. The foundation gave a $342,000 grant to National Public Radio in 2014 and another $550,000 to The Atlantic, whose money went to fund two live events in partnership with the Aspen Institute think tank, according to the publication Inside Philanthropy, which reports on how foundations and major donors give away money and why.
The proponents of charter schools claim the schools are filling a vital need in education. In an interview, Marshall Tuck, a former president of Green Dot charter schools, said he believes that charters give low-income families an opportunity they’ve never had.
“Higher poverty families never had a choice before charters,” says Tuck, whose unsuccessful 2014 campaign to become California Superintendent of Schools was backed by Eli Broad, members of the Walton family and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Higher poverty families never had options. Their only option, at times, was to send their children to underperforming district schools. Having more public school choices for high-poverty families is a good change.”
Yet for all the money that charter school proponents spent on the 2015 Los Angeles school board elections, the Broad Plan continues to be vigorously opposed by the education community. Last January all seven board members, including its two pro-charter members, voted to go on the record as opposing the plan. One of those no votes came from Ref Rodriguez, the beneficiary of $2 million of CCSA largess. Rodriguez says it is impractical and unrealistic to believe that the charter school community could expand so much in Los Angeles and still maintain high standards.
“I’m not a proponent of the plan,” he says. “It’s just not possible.”