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2016-20: The Waltons Set Out to Promote “Choice Ecosystems”

October 29, 2015

In September 2015, Jim and Alice Walton contributed a combined $400,000 to a Louisiana PAC in order to influence the October 2015 Louisiana state board of education election.

The Waltons have an eye on Louisiana, and it has to do with school choice in New Orleans. As of 2014, almost all public schools in New Orleans are charter schools, with 100 percent of the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) operating charter schools. (RSD currently has 63 schools.)

It seems that from 2016 to 2020, the Waltons plan to particularly expand their presence in New Orleans (and DC and Denver). They have a new plan for school choice, as noted in this October 2015 Grantmakers for Education report.

Here are excerpts from the Walton report, including what they supposedly learned on their way to buying what they want.

Of the $373 million the Walton Family Foundation contributed across its three focus areas in 2014, more than half, 54%, went to education. In 2014, funds were disbursed over four education categories: shaping public policy ($80.1 million); creating quality schools ($75.7 million); improving existing schools ($22.6 million); and research and evaluation ($2.5 million). Other education-related grants totaled an additional $21.6 million. …

The Foundation seeks to attract and develop talent to staff teaching, school leadership, district and organizational leadership positions through the support of organizations such as Teach for America. … The Foundation supports national advocacy organizations in order to create policy environments that support reform. Key grantees in this area include the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, Families for Excellent Schools, and Democrats for Education Reform. …

The Walton Family Foundation funds research to improve educational practices and systems in schools across the country. It has funded research on the effectiveness of charter schools by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford. …

Compared to its education philanthropy peers, the Foundation has typically kept a lower public profile….  The Foundation… does engage in what it calls strategic communications [to spread the message about impact the Walton name can have when affiliated with the issues and efforts it supports].

And get this: The Waltons view their “strategy” as somehow neutral. You know, “We fund all sorts of schools, without bias towards charters… But, oh, yeah, we really prefer charters, as our spending history clearly attests”:

The Foundation sees its strategy as agnostic with regard to sector (public charter schools, traditional public schools, private schools). … The Foundation’s funding history includes a significant amount of support for charter schools, however. In fact, roughly two-thirds of the Education Program’s investments support the growth of a high-quality charter sector in some way. This seeming preference for charter schools is in line with the Foundation’s theory of change that requires change agents, like new, high-quality charter schools, to increase competition in citywide school systems….

The Waltons do not see themselves as buying up democracy in order to shape it into the Image of Walton. And they are concerned about building grass roots support for their imposed reform. It seems that they thought the grass roots support would just happen and would manifest itself in automatic “competition” between charters and traditional public schools. Such competition has not happened; so, the Waltons want to increase their funding (and presence) in three key cities in order to petri-dish their latest strategic plan, which will now include grit and determination:

The Walton Family Foundation’s original theory of change was that expanding choice would spur competition, and consequently create system-wide improvements. The Foundation thought that once choice options reached a critical mass or sufficient “market share,” transformational, system-wide change would begin to occur.40 With over 20 years of learning from grantees and their communities, the Foundation’s theory of change is evolving and expanding. As Marc Holley describes it, “We have come to the realization that choice in and of itself is necessary but not sufficient to drive change at scale. We are more deliberate in thinking about what needs to be in place in order to promote functioning choice.” …

The Walton Family Foundation Board also wanted the strategic plan to expand the Foundation’s thinking and definition of school quality. The Foundation is moving beyond looking at test scores as a sole measure of success and is exploring ways to expand its framing, measurement, and grant making to include noncognitive measures of school quality, such as grit and determination. As Marc Holley put it, “We are defining success as preparing students to have a wide range of opportunities in order to be successful. We are also looking at college matriculation, persistence, and graduation. And ideally, we will be looking at workforce outcomes as well.” …

With a new strategic plan in place, the Foundation is also looking to increase support of efforts in some areas such as: 1) subgroups of children with special needs; 2) diverse, locally-driven solutions to educational inequality; 3) exploring new school models for high school and CTE (career and technical education); and 4) finding new ways to reliably assess and develop critical non-cognitive skills.

From their perch at the top, the Waltons need to get the parents (the bottom) on their side:

One area where the Foundation has received criticism is in the area of community engagement. It has been accused of having a top-down approach that does not adequately address the needs and desires of parents, local advocacy groups, and community groups. This is an issue the Foundation is grappling with. “The provision of choice, and the publication of data on school performance, has sometimes had little impact, especially in districts where reform lacks adequate local ownership, community and wider civic involvement, and parent engagement,” [Walton Foundation Senior Advisor] Bruno Manno notes. He identifies two levers in engaging local partners and communities more thoroughly: 1) building an active coalition of supporters, and 2) cultivating local advocacy partners. “We need a local and civic base of support for the work that’s going on. The work we support requires a stable constituency to be advocates for schools over time. There is a political dimension as well, the community and families need to understand what options are available.” …

Perhaps the Waltons need to understand that their vision of “choice” produces a fragmented, decentralized “system” that by definition defies a sense of community and fosters mismanagement and fraud.

But such ideas have not made it into the Next Walton Strategic Plan.

Anyway, the Waltons are going to try to continue to push the “quality of those choices” onto parents who are slow to appreciate such quality:

Joe Siedlecki [Education Program and Policy Officer for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, a frequent collaborator with the Walton Family Foundation] notes that the Foundation has engaged community and family members in a variety of ways, but there is still additional work to do. “First, there is educating parents on choices and the quality of those choices,” he says. “Walton has done a great deal on that front. Then there is mobilizing communities to fight for specific changes, programs, or systems, for something like charter schools. Here, again, Walton has been a leader. Finally, there is empowering communities, which is going into communities, and asking ‘what do you want in your community?’ and then saying, ‘we will help you advocate for that’ even if it is not exactly on our agenda. Nobody has figured out exactly how to do that. That may be the next stage for Walton.”

The Waltons want to buy invest in “local engagement” in the Walton vision for annihilation of the community school, but they just don’t know what it looks like:

The Walton Family Foundation is thoughtfully addressing the issue of local engagement, attempting to identify what authentic engagement looks like in the communities where it invests. It is working at involving local partners and funding them. “We are exploring new opportunities to deeply understand the communities we are involved in,” says Deputy Director Caleb Offley. He goes on to say, “The communities we serve are complex. We want to lead a strong national discussion on community engagement. We will be reliant on local partners to do that.”

Still, the Waltons plan to build grass roots support for their school choice vision by spending more to try and fabricate it:

Taking its lessons learned on community engagement, the Foundation acknowledges that to achieve its goals it needs to build coalitions of engaged supporters at the local level, creating and sharing an authentic and compelling narrative and ground-up effort that brings together partners, grantees, families, and communities.

Looking Ahead

Under its new strategic plan, the Foundation is working more deeply in fewer cities. It will be making direct investments of $500 million in 13 cities over the next five years, with another $500 million going to indirect support for the work in these cities (see Figure 5). The Foundation’s investments are spread across four strategies: city-level investments, spreading the movement, innovation, and research and evaluation. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Walton Figure 5

Here it comes:

Half of the Foundation’s projected investment will be targeted directly at cities. It has identified a continuum of city categories to prioritize these investments. At the highest level of engagement are the Proof Point Cities. In these three cities—New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Denver—the Walton Family Foundation’s goal is for low-income students to achieve the same college and career-readiness rates citywide as those achieved by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), where historically roughly 35% of students complete college. Meeting this benchmark would raise the college completion rates at scale for an entire city by more than 300%. These Proof Point Cities will serve as exemplars of the Walton Family Foundation’s theory of change.

KIPP suffers from attrition, so do not assume that KIPP’s “roughly 35 percent” means 35 percent of a cohort of students. As former TFAer-gone-legit-teacher, Gary Rubinstein, observes, “…40% of the black male students who enter the school (KIPP) in sixth grade drop out of it before completing eighth grade there. This is a staggering number. I wish [KIPP founders] Dave[Levin] and Mike [Feinberg] would just say that this is what they do and that KIPP is not for everyone, but for the kids who don’t get kicked out, it’s a great learning environment. I could respect that. Of course statements like that would not get them as many $100 million dollar grants, so they don’t say it.”

But the Waltons, they like KIPP, and they want to emulate some cardboard cutout of a KIPP college miracle in New Orleans, DC, and Denver.

And the Waltons have an eye to promote their chiefly-charter vision in even more cities, in a series of layers. However, the intention is the same: “choice ecosystems”:

Emerging Cities make up the next level. Emerging Cities are not quite ready to be Proof Points, but are making progress toward becoming fully-fledged choice ecosystems. The third level of city engagement is Big Cities. These are cities with populations larger than 250,000 where any improvements can have significant impact due to the size of the city. Finally, the last level of city engagement is Jumpstart Cities that are early in their development into mature choice ecosystems, but have the potential, with time and investment, to progress to Emerging and eventually Proof Point Cities.

The Waltons are on their way to paving their well-funded path into trying to purchase a “choice ecosystem” in their back yard of Arkansas. As Max Brantley of the Arkansas Blog reports on October 29, 2015:

The Arkansas Supreme Court today agreed with the state Education Department that it was immune from lawsuit over the takeover of the Little Rock School District.

It reversed Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s ruling to the contrary and dismissed the lawsuit. …

For further comment, I asked former LRSD board member Jim Ross (one of the appellees in the case) and former state Board of Education chair Sam Ledbetter(one of the appellants)

Ross argued that the court was motivated by influence from the Walton family, who are leading national advocates for charter schools and school choice. Walton influence was assumed to be behind HB 1733, the failed 2015 bill which aimed to charterize schools within struggling districts such as the LRSD.

“The Supreme Court of Arkansas is the best court Walton money can buy, so it’s no surprise. … We’re pretending that there’s not a big elephant sitting in the middle of this conversation, which is that the Waltons want to fundamentally destroy traditional public schools. And our state Board of Education is leading in that. …”

The Waltons are not alone in the purchasing of “choice ecosystems.”  In California, billionaire Eli Broad is moving forward with plans to put up to half of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) into charter schools– and he has appointed former Louisiana state superintendent Paul Pastorek to make this “forced choice” happen.

The billionaires are turning their refurbished strategy towards establishing “choice ecosystems.” As for the Waltons, they really are trying to bring the little people along as they travel the next five years of their school choice imposition.

petri dish


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, published on June 12, 2015.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.



  1. They tried giving people the choice to choose their choices, but people did not choose to choose their choices, so now it’s No More Mr. Choice Guy.

  2. What are the cities?
    Proof Point: New Orleans, D.C., Denver
    Jump Start:

    (Notice how the reformers recycle names? Louisiana has a ‘Jump Start’…)

  3. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Petri dish is a good visual metaphor.
    Ecology is a hot new meme in circulation for education and for social services “delivery systems.” The initial impression is one of softness, mother nature at her best, The intended image is not that of fierce competition for limited and often specialized resources. Ecology is floated to bring forth the idea of a “vibrant” educational landscape with diverse centers of lively learning, personalized, with choices for learners who seek nurturing and hospitable venues and providers who find their niches creating conditions for system-wide equilibrium.
    That is the baloney.

    If you want to read about it in full blown form go to where future scenarios with a vocabulary tied to learning landscapes and the “ecology of the educational landscape” are well-developed.

    The landscape is huge. There are no teachers, just learners. The entire landscape encompasses all non-profits and profit-seeking providers of learning experiences, complete with learning “sherpas” to help learners find their way. Everything is connected with everything else. has received a lot of Gates money for some NewTech high school ventures. The organization is now almost exclusively devoted to pushing so-called personalized learning…not exactly where the Waltons are going, but capitalizing on the idea of social systems as ecologies.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Walton Foundation: Oops, We Forgot the People! | Nonprofit Quarterly
  2. Ten Years Post-Katrina, the New Orleans Community Forms BENOLA | deutsch29
  3. SB 432 and the Dissolving of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) | deutsch29
  4. Broad, Walton, and Their LA-based Nonprofit, Great Public Schools Now | deutsch29
  5. The Gimmick Behind a Walton-Featured, 100-Percent-College-Acceptance Charter School | deutsch29
  6. The Waltons and Their Charter-Choice “Inroads”: Making Strategic Purchases | deutsch29
  7. Hanna Skandera: Her Consulting Firm and Her Mystery “Initiative” | deutsch29

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