Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why The Walton Family Foundation Is Upping The Ante In Indiana

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

The Walton Family Foundation has announced it will up its investment in Indianapolis organizations that support vouchers and charter schools.

If there’s anyone left who doubts Indiana’s standing as a national hotbed of “school choice,” reconsider those doubts.

The Walton Family Foundation announced Wednesday it will give $3 million to Indianapolis organizations that support charter and voucher schools. According to a statement from the foundation, it’s Walton’s “largest single-year investment” in both Indianapolis and the state as a whole.

That’s a six-fold increase from five years ago, and a statement of the momentum on the side of efforts in Indiana to allow parents to use state dollars to attend an array of public and private school — much to the dismay of those who fear such efforts undermine traditional public schools.

“Indiana is certainly one of the top five states in the country right now in terms of its momentum in creating statewide education policies that expand publicly-funded choice for families,” Walton Family Foundation senior program officer Ed Kirby told StateImpact.

“Indiana policymakers,” Kirby added, “are not simply saying ‘We’re trying to expand choice,’ they’re also saying, ‘We’re trying to expand choice in the context of quality,’” Kirby says.

The Walton Family Foundation has become one of the most active contributors to school choice initiatives in the nation, giving more than $159 million nationally last year. While Walton’s planned 2012 contributions in Indianapolis are relatively small when compared to, for instance, the $25 million The Mind Trust has raised to support education overhaul, the increased “investment” is symbolic of growing national interest in Indiana’s charter school landscape.

Robert Enlow, the president of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, says the Walton’s investment is “significant” and indicative of how the foundation does business.

“They come alongside groups that have done good work in a state, and when they see an environment like Indiana, they rachet up their investment to support the great work that is going on,” Enlow says.

The Mind Trust is one of the organizations which will receive grants from the foundation, which was started by Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Walton’s media statement also names the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, the Indiana Department of Education and School Choice Indiana as recipients.

While officials with Indianapolis Public Schools have said they’re all for increased competition for student enrollment, many advocates for traditional public schools say increased choice sends resources — students, state dollars, public support — to charter and voucher schools that haven’t demonstrated they’re any better at teaching students than the public schools.

“We’re not investing in Indianapolis to support any particular school provider or type of school provider. Our interest is simply in opening up opportunities to parents.”
—Ed Kirby, Walton Family Foundation

“Our public schools have never before been subject to such a sustained assault on their very foundations. Never before were there so many people, with such vast resources, intent on dismantling public education,” blogs education historian Diane Ravitch at EdWeek. Ravitch has criticized charter and voucher schools, and says Walton is part of a “Billionaire Boys Club” in education philanthropy.

University of Illinois-Chicago professor Kevin Kumashiro writes for the American Association of University Professors that philanthropies such as Walton “emphasize the privatization and marketization of public education.”

“The result is a philanthropic sector that is inseparable from the business sector,” Kumashiro says, “advancing school reforms that cannot help but to be framed by corporate profitability.”

Luke Frazza / AFP / Getty Images

Sam Walton, the founder of retail giant Wal-Mart, and namesake of the Walton Family Foundation.

That concerns Indiana Coalition for Public Education president Vic Smith, who says he’s skeptical about the impact of private sector dollars on K-12 education. He believes “efficiency” in privately-backed schools will inevitably mean trimming back services for students for the sake of profits.

Choice proponents such as Walton dispute these claims. Ed Kirby says the Walton Family Foundation is upping its investment to help parents have broadened choice options and the ability to choose between higher-quality schools. Here’s part of his interview with StateImpact:

Our focus is unapologetically on the interests of parents. We’re not investing in Indianapolis to support any particular school provider or type of school provider. Our interest is simply in opening up opportunities to parents. If there’s anxiety among and across school providers, whether that be traditional Indianapolis Public Schools, or public charter schools, or private schools who struggle with enrollment and financial viability all the time, I don’t think that’s unhealthy. I think that’s part of competitive response. If, for example, there is a mediocre or low-performing charter school that is feeling the heat of competition and has anxiety about losing families and students to other schools, that’s a great thing in our book if that helps motivate them to perform at a higher level or take aggressive action that they hadn’t heretofore, that’s great.



  • inteach

    Walton money…made from the backs of underpaid Wal-Mart workers.

    Next up…teachers.

    • tommy dolley

      We need to invest in our public school and stop cutting some of the programs. May very successful people graduated from public schools. We need to start supporting our public teachers. Our political friends a looking at what what dollars can be made and pocketed, not what a better education these kids can receive. Its all a business!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Know A Bit

        We’ve been “investing” in public schools for decades, at ever-higher percentages of property taxes.

  • Jenny Robinson

    Regarding the quote from Ed Kirby of the Walton foundation, who says their focus is “unapologetically the interests of parents”: I am a parent and I do not feel represented at all by this foundation, or by the move toward privatization…which mainly seems like an attempt to expand the profitability of the education sector on the backs of our children. For instance, the new “technology” charter that Tony Bennett invited to Indianapolis that features a ratio of seventy students to one teacher, aided by computer programs. More choice? I question that. An attempt to make teaching our children cheaper? Clearly.

  • Hoosier Parent

    I am a parent who is NOT in favor of the changes that the
    Republicans are steamrolling through the legislature. My children attend a
    rural public school. We love the school and the quality of education that takes
    place there. Unfortunately due to the cuts that Mitch Daniels has made to
    public education our community’s school may be forced to close (consolidate).
    This takes away a choice for the parents.
    Ultimately charter schools are all about profit, not the
    quality of education provided. Perhaps the Walmart plan is to keep a segment of
    our population poorly education so that they canot attain higher wage jobs and
    can only afford to shop at Walmart, thus continuing the cycle. This of course
    will also provide more employees for Walmart to hire at very low wages.
    Walmart is a corporation that does NOT care about our
    communities or our children’s education. They are only concerned about money.

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