Here's What Really Caused the Walton Foundation to Stop Funding Charter Schools in Chicago

May 5, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Marilyn Rhames

The Walton Family Foundation just announced it will stop funding charter schools in Chicago likely for the same reason I’m tempted to sell my house in the city and say like they do on the show “Shark Tank”: I’m out.

It’s hard doing business here. Despite working hard and paying our taxes, the state is broke. The county is broke. The school district is broke. The city is broke. And more and more middle-class residents like me are broke. I wish I was just talking about money. Not only is Illinois operating with a 10-digit deficit and unfunded pension liabilities upwards of $111 billion, but the state and the city of Chicago are entrenched in political warfare so bitter and deep that President Barack Obama jumped in to campaign for a first-time, virtually unknown candidate running for a state representative seat in my district. And while charter schools have long had a loud group of critics in Chicago, it’s the political chaos surrounding all of public education that may have scared the Walton Foundation away. If you had a few million dollars laying around to start new charter schools, would you invest it in a city where just seven months ago 42 of 50 aldermen signed a nonbinding resolution to put a moratorium on new charter schools? Would you spend your philanthropic energy on charter schools when just last month, the district tried to negotiate a freeze on the number of charters (a power it doesn’t actually have) to broker a teachers union contract in the hopes of avoiding a strike? Would you pour money into launching high-quality charter schools in a district that closed three chronically failing charters only to have its decision overturned by the State Charter School Commission that unanimously agreed that the district hadn’t followed the rules? And while the residents are exasperated by the many shootings taking place in Chicago, they are most traumatized by the rampant corruption, injustice and inequality that exists in our schools and government, for which they see no hope of fixing.

No, This Is Not a Victory for Anti-Charter Critics

Diane Ravitch, a staunch critic of education reform and charter schools, recently suggested that the public backlash against charters in Chicago finally ran the Walton Foundation out of the city. I disagree. Between 2009 and 2014—when the anti-charter movement was at its height—the foundation gave nearly $7 million in direct grants to charter schools in Chicago. The foundation is clearly not afraid of a fight. As a Chicago resident, I find that [pullquote]the average citizen is agnostic about the charter versus district debate. They just want access to great schools.[/pullquote] Like most philanthropic foundations, it’s reasonable for the Walton Foundation to want to maximize its return on investment—without unnecessary drama. The foundation, which claims to have funded 1 in 4 charter schools in America, is now refusing to plant its profits into Chicago’s toxic educational soil. In fact, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) ranks Illinois a measly 32 out of 43 states on alignment with the organization’s model charter school law guidelines to promote expansion. The National Association for Charter School Authorizers was a bit more generous, placing Illinois 25th out of 44 for having charter policies that promote quality schools and accountability. Walton’s own webpage makes it clear: “We are investing in cities where conditions support system-wide educational improvement and where we can have the greatest impact.” And just like 105,200 Illinois residents and a dozen large corporations that last year fled to other states for better economic opportunities, the Walton Family Foundation is taking its checkbook to more charter-friendly school districts in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Atlanta—cities in states that NAPCS ranked first, fourth and 18th, respectively. It’s not that elected officials and school districts in these states fully embrace charter schools, but the rigorous checks and balances in which charters are both authorized and held accountable creates a culture of mutual respect, and in some cases even collaboration, from their counterparts. Maybe the Walton Family Foundation realized that after Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 49 schools for their lack of enrollment in 2013 that opening more charter schools made little sense. (The exception is the Southwest Side of Chicago, where Latino communities still face under-performing and overcrowded schools. Since the massive school closures, only two new charters have been approved and both were on the Southwest Side.) Whatever the reason, the Walton Family Foundation said, “I’m out.” But before anti-charter advocates throw a party over this perceived victory, a word of caution: [pullquote]This could be a sign of darker days to come for Chicago Public Schools.[/pullquote] Look at Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cleveland and Detroit. All five of those school districts are underwater financially, politically and academically—and they have to practically donate body parts to lure philanthropic bucks. Every major city needs a robust public-private partnership to thrive. With mounting debt, feuding politicians, and a shrinking tax base, pretending that Chicago’s public education sector can afford to go it alone is just plain folly.

Marilyn Rhames

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” She is currently on the design team for Harvard University's Leaders' Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE). Marilyn has 14 years experience teaching in Chicago Public Schools, but before becoming an educator Marilyn worked as a journalist for People and Time magazines and for newspapers including New York Newsday and The Journal News. She currently writes for Education Post and has published pieces in the Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and RealClearEducation. Marilyn was named 2013 Commentator/Blogger of the Year by the Bammy Awards for her Education Week blog, entitled “Charting My Own Course." She was a 2016 Surge Institute Fellow and a Teach Plus teaching policy fellow from 2010-1012. Through her consulting firm Rhames Consulting, Marilyn offers a full range of services from education content editing to providing professional development on community engagement to public speaking on issues of faith, race, writing, and education. Marilyn has served as an education commentator on 90.1 FM Moody Radio Chicago; the presenter of a 2013 TEDx talk entitled “Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo”; and a 2017 speaker at the Yale University Education Leadership Conference. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master’s degree in education from National Louis University. Marilyn is a wife and mother of three. In August 2017, she came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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