NYT On Walton/Charters

Late to this, a lot of travel the past few weeks. But in case you missed it the The New York Times took a look at the Walton Family Foundation* and charter schools in a big front page story. As you might expect, an article with the words “Walton” and “charters” inspired strong feelings and accusations of bias. The critics of charters hated it because it didn’t give air time to the idea that the Walton family, collectively the nation’s wealthiest, is trying to enrich itself by giving away much of their money.  Some charter advocates didn’t like it either, for reasons that are less clear to me. For my part I thought the article was pretty fair and a good overview. The reporter, Motoko Rich, writes that,

Another, less trumpeted, distinction for DC Prep is the extent to which it — as well as many other charter schools in the city — relies on the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropic group governed by the family that founded Walmart.

This is the tip-off of what’s coming. This is only news if you don’t pay attention or don’t work in the sector. Walton’s instrumental role in supporting charter school advocacy, research, state charter school associations, and schools themselves is pretty well-known. And the specifics are no great secret, the foundation discloses its grants and grantees. But that’s the point, Rich wasn’t writing for those in the know but rather for a general audience. So it was pretty predictable, teachers union leaders say charters are destructive, parents and Walton officials argue the opposite. If there was value for insiders it was the further evidence that the gap between sloganeering and evidence is growing.

What was unfortunate, in my view, was that the issues of charter quality and what Walton is pushing on there got buried. To me the evolution of the foundation’s theory of action and their engagement on quality as well as supply and demand issues are the most interesting parts of their story right now (and belies the idea that the foundation is impervious to criticism).

Also, the literary conceit of linking what the foundation is doing to the debates over expansion of WalMart stores is obvious. But it can inadvertently signal to readers that there is some actual linkage. You hear that a lot about family foundations – that they’re advancing some business interest. To be clear, Rich didn’t imply a linkage but others do and it’s a serious charge – in fact an allegation of illegal activity – to toss around lightly. Corporate foundations and family foundations are different animals and there are rules governing what both can and cannot do – as Pearson found out a few years ago when its corporate foundation ran into trouble for blurring the lines between philanthropy and business. One of those places where precise language matters.

Bottom line: Given the tenor of the debate I have little doubt there will be a hit piece soon on Walton, charters, or both for everyone to argue about. But this article wasn’t it.

*Walton funds some of Bellwether’s work, for instance this analysis on teacher effectiveness and work we do on charter school policy.

2 Responses to “NYT On Walton/Charters”

  1. Gideon Says:

    While the article was replete with facts, the tone and language of the article was not, as you say, “pretty fair.” In particular, Rich wrote “The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy as well as on which schools flourish and which are forced to fold. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing, and most divisive, trends in public education.” There is no explanation of what “outsize” influence means, and it’s hard to read the word “tentacles” in a neutral way. Had Rich written about the tentacles of the AFT or NEA in this way, I can’t imagine anyone would have thought that article fair and balanced.

  2. arotherham Says:

    Hi Gideon,

    Thanks.

    But, I think that statement you cite is fair. I would hope that when they write about the NEA or AFT they do it with the same context and understanding of power.

    The problem is not with this specific article, it’s just that too often this issue is portrayed as the poor overmatched unions when in fact they’re just as powerful as the foundation – arguably more so.

    These are big interests clashing and it would be helpful to readers if reporters would take time to understand that and cover it as such. But this article was about Walton, not the unions.

    (And give the Walton’s credit, they don’t pretend otherwise or do the poor mouthing routine the teachers unions do.)

    AR

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