Billionaires Fueling Charter School Movement, Shaping State Policy

Billionaires Fueling Charter School Movement, Shaping State Policy

Billionaires like Bill Gates and the Walton family are influencing state education policy through their funding for organizations that support and promote the charter school movement across the country, the Associated Press reports.

Privately run, publicly funded charter schools are embraced by many high-net-worth philanthropists, who see them as innovating new and better ways to educate children who often struggle in regular district schools, particularly those in poor urban areas. In the process, however, charters have become a political lightning rod, with teachers' unions and others arguing that they drain resources from cash-starved district schools and undermine the neighborhood school model that has helped define American communities for more than a century. According to an AP analysis of tax filings and Foundation Center data, private funders have given nearly half a billion dollars since 2006 to fifty-two charter school support organizations. The analysis also shows that the top fifteen state charter advocates received $425 million of the total, and that the Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville, Arkansas, was the largest donor to the charter school movement, giving $144 million to twenty-seven groups.

Another leading funding of charter schools, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, helped create the Washington State Charter Schools Association in 2012 and has awarded nearly $25 million to the support and advocacy organization in the years since. Charter skeptics told the AP that the Seattle-based foundation has done more than any other entity to advance the fortunes of charter schools in Washington State, giving at least $4 million to help pass a state charter school law in 2012 after different versions of the law had failed three times as ballot initiatives. After the state's highest court ruled in 2015 that the law's funding model was unconstitutional, the Gates-backed association secured nearly $5 million to keep six charter schools open and lobbied legislators to pass a new law, which is being challenged in court by the state's teachers union. In 2016, the association created a political arm, and an affiliated political action committee has already given small amounts to dozens of pro-charter state lawmakers who are up for election this fall.

In California, the Waltons are the biggest backers of the California Charter School Association, which has received more than $100 million since 2006 from the Gates, Michael and Susan Dell, and Silicon Valley Community foundations. CCSA's political arm is now focusing on supporting pro-charter candidates in the November elections, including former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck for state schools superintendent. Earlier this year, the Walton Family Foundation also announced the creation of two loan funds totaling $300 million in support of charter schools as well as a $100 million initiative that includes ongoing support for charter school networks.

"The philanthropic support is essential for a small group of schools" that represent disadvantaged families without their own political power, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a University of Washington-affiliated think tank that has received support from the Gates Foundation.

But John Rogers, an education policy expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the AP it's a problem for democracy that billionaires who back a certain model of education have as much influence over policy as a critical mass of professional teachers. "A handful of billionaires who are advancing their vision of education reform is very different," said Rogers, "than having two hundred thousand-some-odd teachers across the state representing their understanding of public education through their union representation."

For more information about foundation funding for education, check out Foundation Center's Education mini-portal.

(Photo credit: Walton Family Foundation)

Sally Ho. "Billionaires Fuel US Charter Schools Movement." Associated Press 07/16/2018.