On New Philanthropy, Education Reform, and Eli Broad’s Big Plan for L.A. Schools

Originally published at The American Prospect on September 22, 2015.
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The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document yesterday, which seems to confirm earlier reports that the Broad Foundation wants at least 50 percent of L.A. public school students educated in charter schools over the next eight years. Currently, 16 percent of students in L.A. Unified attend charters, and according to the report, getting to 50 percent would require creating 260 new schools, for 130,000 students, at a cost of $490 million.

“Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to create the largest, highest-performing charter sector in the nation,” the report stated. “Such an exemplar would serve as a model for all large cities to follow.”

Hmmm. That sounds familiar.

Earlier this month, veteran Washington Post journalist Dale Russakoff published a new book, The Prize, which explores education reform efforts in Newark from 2010-2015. Her book details the goals, mistakes, and challenges reformers encountered as they tried to “transform” Newark’s struggling school system—largely through expanding charters, closing “failing” schools, and implementing new teacher pay scales. The political drama and backroom dealings led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offers humbling lessons to all those working to improve public education, no matter where one comes down on the policy specifics.

Like Eli Broad’s vision for Los Angeles, a key goal for Newark education reformers was to make the city a model for the rest of urban America. Booker wanted Newark to be transformed into “a hemisphere of hope” and repeatedly told Zuckerberg that their goal was not just to fix local education, but to develop the “high impact programs and best practices” that could fix education in all major cities. Booker believed that if he could succeed within a difficult district like Newark, then he could succeed anywhere. He emphasized that Zuckerberg’s investment could help lead to the “blueprint for national replication across America’s urban centers to transform its youth.”

This month, HistPhil, a blog that explores the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, has been running an excellent series on philanthropic involvement in education. Their effort is well timed: As billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into education reform, the need to understand what’s historically new, and what’s not, is more important than ever.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist and author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public Schools, contributed to the HistPhil series by looking specifically at Mark Zuckerberg’s experiment in Newark. Reckhow notes that there exists a “perennial drive” for philanthropists to create national reform models. She points to the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program in the 1960s, an effort that philanthropists had hoped could serve as a national model for urban policy. “The fallacy of the national replication model—at the expense of truly listening and understanding local circumstances—is a lesson that philanthropists must relearn time and again,” Reckhow says.

Other cities experimenting with education reform are similarly interested in “scaling” their efforts. Many point to the academic gains seen in New Orleans—the urban district with the highest percentage of charter schools in the country—as reason to implement their reforms elsewhere. “We don’t know if similar efforts can be replicated in other cities,” argued Neerav Kingsland, a prominent New Orleans reformer. “But we owe it to the children of this country to try and find out.” Tulane economist Doug Harris, who has conducted the most rigorous research on New Orleans reforms to date, says it’s questionable whether their model would work in other cities given the unique economic and political conditions present in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

OK, so reformers and philanthropists are drawn to ideas that can scale—and apparently have been for a long time. Still, how should we be thinking about Eli Broad’s plan to “charterize” L.A.? Is there anything new about today’s crop of philanthropists? Several contributors to the HistPhil blog argue yes.

Sociologist Robin Rogers says that the ideas held by modern philanthropists reflect those commonly seen in the venture capital world. She cites an influential article from 1997 in The Harvard Business Review that encouraged philanthropists to pursue social change using tactics commonly employed in the business sector. “Considered to be more muscular than traditional approaches to philanthropy, the new philanthropy appeals to many men who made money in tech or finance sectors,” Rogers writes. “These (primarily) men have great faith in the tools and techniques that they used to disrupt the old economy and usher in the new one.”

While modern philanthropists share some similarities with their rich predecessors, Rogers argues that today’s bunch are far more likely to focus on “institutional pressure points” rather than provide support for a diverse set of projects. (She points to the Gates Foundation’s involvement in promoting the Common Core standards as an example, as well as dogged support for expanding charter schools).

Jeffrey W. Snyder, a postdoctoral research fellow in education, philanthropy, and advocacy at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, also wrote a HistPhil post exploring differences between “old” and “new” philanthropy—specifically in terms of their priorities and philanthropic methods. For one thing, Snyder finds that “new foundation granting in recent years far surpasses the total given by old foundations.”

Source: Jeffrey W. Snyder, HistPhil blog

Source: Jeffrey W. Snyder, HistPhil blog

He also says that newer foundations do indeed have different priorities compared to older ones. The latter tends to give substantially to university-based programs and research that aims to improve existing educational systems, while newer foundations donate heavily to charter schools and other organizations that push for more radical change.

We don’t yet know what’s going to happen with Eli Broad’s plan to “reach 50 percent charter market share” within Los Angeles public schools. And it wouldn’t be fair to assume he’ll behave just as Mark Zuckerberg did in Newark, or as other billionaires have elsewhere. Still, paying attention to historical precedent is important, and there seems to be sufficient reason to be wary. As The Washington Post’s art critic Philip Kennicott wrote just days ago, Eli Broad “is a self-made man…who has also built and burned bridges all across [Los Angeles]. Ask around, and no one seems to like him, though many call him effective…They admire his brilliance, covet his money, fear his power and lament his character, which is described as imperious, egomaniacal and relentless.”

Sorry, Walmart: Charter Schools Won’t Fix Poverty

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 30th, 2015.
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Last week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and In the Public Interest released a highly critical report on the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education philanthropy, which ended with a call for increased transparency and accountability in the charter sector. The gist of the report is that the Walton Family Foundation—which has kick-started about one in four charters around the country—“relentlessly presses for rapid growth of privatized education options” and has opposed serious efforts to regulate and monitor fraud and abuse. While the foundation supports rapidly scaling up charter networks that have produced promising results, the AFT and In the Public Interest cite a 2013 Moody’s Investment Services report which found that dramatically expanding charter schools in poor urban areas weakens the ability of traditional schools to serve their students, forcing them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs to make ends meet.

A month earlier, Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), published its own report on the Walton Family Foundation’s impact, and found that although they have achieved meaningful results through their environmental philanthropy, “an overreliance on specific market-based vehicles” hinders their ability to create “sustainable and equitable” improvements in education. Philamplify also criticized the Walton Family Foundation for “insulating itself among like-minded peers rather than connecting with the broader field.”

While the Walton Family Foundation did not return my request for comment, Education Week reported that their spokesperson, Daphne Moore, defended their commitment to high-quality schools. Education Week also cites Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation—who argued that the foundation has long demonstrated a commitment to accountability and transparency.

This discussion is sure to continue over the coming months, but what was particularly striking was something in the Walton Family Foundation’s response to the Philamplify report—a statement that has been reiterated by the foundation many times over the past several years. Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 program director, said, “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.”

The notion that education is needed to break the cycle of poverty is a popular mantra of the education reform movement. The problem is, it is simply not true at all. The most direct way to break the cycle of poverty is actually to give poor people more money, something that high-quality educations, even college degrees, do not in any way guarantee. So when it comes to the question of redistribution—an integral component to any comprehensive anti-poverty program—the political work of the Walton family deserves far greater scrutiny.

Waltons, Walmart, and Politics

The Walton family heirs own a majority of public shares in Walmart, the U.S.’s largest private employer, which easily makes them some of the richest people on earth. Today, the Walton family has more wealth than 49 million American families combined. The six Walton heirs together have a net worth of at least $148.8 billion.

The Walton family engages in quite a bit of political work outside of its environmental and education philanthropy—much of it to advance conservative legislative goals. In the 2014 electoral cycle, Walmart spent $2.4 million through its PAC and individual donations, and $12.5 million through lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Walmart was far and away the biggest big-box retail spender in the election cycle, and has been ranked among the top 100 political donors since 1989. Demos looked at the Walton family’s political contributions between 2000 and 2014 and found that their $7.3 million in campaign contributions heavily favored Republican candidates over Democrats.

Outside of political campaigns, Walmart employs an array of Washington, D.C., lobbyists to advocate on issues like labor, taxes, and trade. Up until May 2012, Walmart was a longtime member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works to promote an ideologically conservative agenda around the country. Moreover Walmart has given millions to the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Republican Governors Association, and other organizations that push right-wing policies.

Their animus towards union and labor is no secret, and Walmart has fought strengthening labor law in Washington, D.C., as well as supporting efforts to expand right-to-work laws in state legislatures. In addition, as veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reported for The Atlantic this month, Walmart “maintains a steady drumbeat of anti-union information at its more than 4,000 U.S. stores”—much of which is patently false.

Beyond their efforts to elect conservative candidates and promote right-wing causes, the Waltons also fight against efforts to promote a greater redistribution of wealth through taxation. According to Treasury Department estimates, closing just two estate tax loopholes that the Waltons use would raise more than $2 billion annually over the next decade—but they have long lobbied against any effort to do so. Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state organizations that seeks to promote progressive tax reform, found that Walmart and the Walton family benefit from an estimated $7.8 billion in annual tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies—much of which stems from the fact that so many of Walmart employees earn meager wages and are forced to rely on public assistance.

After years of worker organizing and public pressure, Walmart recently announced that it would raise its hourly wages to $9 an hour by April and $10 an hour by February 2016. While encouraging, such measures alone are unlikely to mitigate the economic hardship most Americans face—especially when, at this point, many cities are pushing for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Economic Inequality and Public Education

The evidence that shows impoverished kids are disadvantaged in school is well-documented—and yet many education reformers insist that despite this, we can still provide every child with a high-quality education so that everyone succeeds. We shouldn’t use poverty as “an excuse,” they say.

The idea that we can redesign education to be excellent and equitable without reducing poverty and economic inequality certainly sounds politically pleasant, but we know it’s just not true. That’s why the education agenda of the Walton Family Foundation has so many internal contradictions. The Waltons say they want to create more high-quality schools to help kids in poverty, but they back candidates who support eroding the already crumbling social safety net and fight against paying their fair share of taxes. And while the Waltons continue to advocate aggressively against unions, the Economic Policy Institute has found that the decline in unionization has mirrored the rise in inequality “to a remarkable extent.”

Not only does poverty hurt one’s chance for success in school, but growing levels of economic inequality also further exacerbate these issues—problems that the Walton heirs do not seem interested in addressing. Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago—though the academic performance of poor students has not declined during this time. He also found that before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students when it came to academic performance, but “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.” In other words, growing economic inequality has contributed to disparities in academic achievement across the board, even for those not living in poverty. Other researchers have found that the rich now have much greater access to extracurricular opportunities than the poor. In districts across the country, enrichment programs like art, music, journalism, and athletics are being cut—creating even greater divides between the haves and the have-nots in education.

If we want to reduce poverty and economic inequality—things we know hurt student achievement and life outcomes—then we have to address how the education aims of the Walton Family Foundation are incongruous with their political agenda elsewhere. Closing the achievement gap, as Demos analyst Matt Bruenig points out, will not even reduce poverty; it would merely change the distribution of it. In the education-reform world, unfortunately, grantees are unlikely to criticize foundations because they fear they will be blacklisted or de-funded. This makes sense, as there are incredible power imbalances in the philanthropic sector and money is scarce.

The Walton Family Foundation talks a lot about creating high-quality schools. If Walmart, with its billions of dollars in profits, created high-quality jobs with living wages and benefits, children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty and would perform far better in school. Relatedly, if the Waltons backed candidates who supported a more equitable distribution of wealth and stronger social-welfare policies, then children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty, and perform far better in school. It’s certainly true that every child deserves a high-quality education. How to get there, however, is not rocket science.