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Rick Cohen of the Nonprofit Quarterly has a must-read report on a recent debate about the Walton Family Foundation. The report and the debate about it were sponsored by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
This debate and the report on which it is based represent a sad turnaround in philosophy for the NCRP. In two previous reports, noted below, the organization warned about the dangers of privatization and specifically singled out the Walton Family Foundation for using its wealth to undermine the public sector. This new report tilts towards the beneficence of the Walton privatization agenda. Has NCRP lost its independence? Or its voice?
In this instance, the roots of the debate were in an NCRP report published in May 2015, part of NCRP’s “Philamplify” series, on the Walton Family Foundation, subtitled, “How Can This Market-Oriented Grantmaker Advance Community-Led Solutions for Greater Equity?” Compared to earlier NCRP reports on the Walton Family Foundation, notably NCRP’s 2005 report, “The Waltons and Wal-Mart: Self-Interested Philanthropy,” and its 2007 follow-up, “Strategic Grantmaking: Foundations and the School Privatization Movement, it was distinctly less critical of the ideology and agenda of the Arkansas philanthropic behemoth. Both earlier reports indicated that the foundation’s promotion of school choice, charter schools, and school vouchers in education reform had led to a pernicious, self-interested crusade to undermine public schools.
When it comes to market approaches, as Sherece West-Scantlebury, the president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and chair of the NCRP board, noted at the beginning of the debate, NCRP is “agnostic.” In fact, for the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation itself, headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas, West-Scantlebury described the Walton Family Foundation, headquartered in Bentonville 200 miles away, as a “great partner” for her foundation’s programs. Walton has a major programmatic emphasis in its “home region,” with grantmaking focused on Northwest Arkansas and Delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi totaling more than $40 million in 2014, while Winthrop Rockefeller is totally dedicated to Arkansas’s advancement, both with overlapping commitments to education programs in Arkansas, including the two foundations’ joint sponsorship in 2014 of the “ForwARd Partnership for Arkansas Education” initiative.
Cohen admits at the end of the piece that he is not a disinterested observer, because he wrote the earlier reports that were highly critical of the Walton Family Foundation’s support for school privatization. Given that the far-right Walton family (and its Walmart corporation) is opposed to unions, it is not surprising that it would support non-union charter schools and religious schools. It is hard to swallow the claim that support for privatization and union-busting is an agenda for equity, but the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation is able to do so.
You will find the account of the debate interesting. What galled me was that the lead advocate for school choice, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, invoked the late AFT leader Albert Shanker’s name as a proponent of charter schools. I don’t blame Pondiscio for saying this, as the myth of Shanker’s charter advocacy is widely cited in rightwing circles. But I frequently point out that while Shanker was among the very first to advocate for charter schools in 1988, he renounced his support for charter schools in 1993 in his weekly New York Times paid column. He said that charter schools were an instrument for privatization, no different from vouchers. He became soured on private management because of an experiment in Baltimore that involved a private group called Education Alternatives Inc. It fired unionized paraprofessionals who earned $10 an hour and replaced them with college graduates who worked for $7 an hour. Ironically, one of those college-graduates in the experiment was Michelle Rhee. In 1994, Shanker became more outspoke in his opposition to charters when he discovered that the first charter school in Michigan in 1994 was the Noah Webster Academy, enrolling some 700 students, mostly Christian home-schoolers who were taught a creationist curriculum on computers. The “school,” the computers and the curriculum were publicly funded. I would be very happy if charter cheerleaders stopped invoking Shanker’s name as one of their founding fathers.