Public Schools

The NCRP Debate on Market Approaches to Education Reform


At first glance, it might happen to be reasonable to inquire about why the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy may wish to host a arguements for and against advocates and opponents of market-based approaches in education reform. What was the upside of picking that issue for a debate above any one of many other issues where the efficacy of market-based strategies in significant societal issues is, as they say, \”debatable?\”

The \”privatization\” question in public places policy, in which public programs tend to be more or less ceded to the private sector (specially the market-driven for-profit sector) to structure and implement, is at the center of many initiatives. These include the proliferation of private sector builders and operators of prisons, proposals to show over municipal water systems to personal corporations, and even the turning over of child welfare services to for-profit companies.

In this instance, the roots of the debate were in an NCRP report published in May 2021, a part of NCRP's \”Philamplify\” series, around the Walton Family Foundation, subtitled, \”How Can This Market-Oriented Grantmaker Advance Community-Led Solutions for Greater Equity?\” When compared with earlier NCRP reports around 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 had been distinctly less critical from the ideology and agenda from the Arkansas philanthropic behemoth. Both earlier reports indicated that the foundation's promotion of faculty choice, charter schools, and college vouchers in education reform had resulted in a pernicious undermining of public school systems.

When you are looking at market approaches, however, as Sherece West-Scantlebury, the president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and chair from the NCRP board, noted at the beginning of the controversy, NCRP is \”agnostic.\” Actually, for that 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 2021, while Winthrop Rockefeller is totally focused on Arkansas's advancement, both with overlapping commitments to education programs in Arkansas, such as the two foundations' joint sponsorship in 2021 from the \”ForwARd Partnership for Arkansas Education\” initiative.

The Philamplify report on the Waltons was really complimentary of the Walton Foundation's market-based approaches in the environmental programming, lauding the \”powerful and lasting results\” it has achieved in its environmental portfolio through \”leveraging the power of markets as a key strategic element\” (p. 13). Although the report noted the criticism of Naomi Klein the Walton Family Foundation continues to be strongly connected to the \”big greens\” such as the Nature Conservancy and also the Environmental Defense Fund (p. 29), that it has thus far sidestepped engagement within the core environmental issue of man-made global warming (p. 28), and that \”the foundation's environmental grantmaking can't be viewed as discrete from Walmart's corporate interests\” (p. 8), the general impression was one of the Walton Family Foundation as an effective \”triple bottom line\” philanthropy in environmental issues.

Public education is commonly more contentious in current politics, particularly as education reformers promote \”school choice\” and rigorous testing of students and teachers as a public policy agenda while teachers unions yet others question the efficacy of education reform and also the motivations of the reformers. While liberals tend to be favorably disposed than conservatives to unions and much more suspicious of using tax revenues for private school vouchers, they've been mixed on charter schools, that are chartered within public school systems and frequently established and defended by liberal groups. (Witness the pro-charter reports from the National Council of los angeles Raza and also the Center for American Progress here and because two examples.)

On education, the NCRP's latest Walton Philamplify report contained criticisms of the foundation's approach, but was not as eviscerating as the 2005 and 2007 reports. The Philamplify report noted (but didn't challenge) the Walton Family Foundation's thought that school choice or public education in general is \”the best lever to interrupt periodic poverty\”-that is, \”improved academic outcomes are the answer to better life outcomes\” (p. 16). It summarized the foundation's strategy as \”rel(ying) around the core worth of empowering parents to select where their kids go to school.\”

Interviewees both inside and outside the building blocks acknowledged that school choice wasn't a \”silver bullet,\” however the report didn't wonder if other motivations may be behind the foundation's education strategies, for example lowering the size of government, smashing the teachers unions, creating opportunities for schools that allow for less-than-traditional public curricula (e.g., religious schools or the ones that teach dubious theories for example \”intelligent design\”), or using charter schools as vanguards within public systems to ultimately weaken them and replace all of them with private school alternatives. In fact, the NCRP report credited the Walton Family Foundation with \”a genuine concern for and resolve for increasing opportunity for people residing in poverty\” (p. 4) and offered recommendations to \”amplify [its] social justice impact.\” Taking Walton's authenticity on educational empowerment without any consideration, the report required the building blocks to \”embody the foundation's commitment to 'empowerment' by authentically engaging members of communities most impacted by issues it funds so that stakeholders can help determine the very best strategies and solutions\” (p. 5).

That kind of analysis of the foundation whose donors-the people in the ultra-right-wing Walton family-are major contributors to Republican political candidates (detailed in reports, such as here, and this article from Bloomberg, though the Waltons have curried support from politicians of both sides to improve its public image and gain broader acceptance for its environmental and education strategies) was certain to raise questions of where NCRP stood around the efficacy of market approaches to education reform, instead of the recommendations in the are accountable to make the Walton Family Foundation more efficient by maintaining its high payout rates, continuing its focus on general operating funds, continuing its engagement of \”stakeholders\” in its market-oriented environmental program, prioritizing \”equity\” within the foundation's educational programming, increasing its engagement of stakeholders in its education programs, diversifying its board and staff composition, and \”conven(ing) grantees to foster shared learning and networking\” (pp. 4-5).

The NCRP \”debate,\” moderated by West-Scantlebury, pitted Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and v . p . at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, using the largely pro-market position, against Brandon Johnson, the deputy policy director of the Chicago Teachers Union, on the anti side, with a panel of commentators-Lori Bezahler, president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation; Deborah McGriff, managing director from the New Schools Venture Fund; and Jennifer Esterline, project consultant for Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium.

Pondiscio made it clear in the outset that he was \”not entirely sold\” on market-based approaches, finding them limited, and that he thinks \”instructional reform\” is as necessary as \”structural reform.\” He explained that without instructional reform-and without the \”sunshine\” effects of testing-\”schools of preference can and do become a second flavor of bad.\” Advancing equality, he suggested, requires a lot more than charters and selection, even though he himself is really a teacher at a charter school in Harlem, since the well-to-do can still choose the schools they think work and leave those without resources to suffer in substandard schools, whether traditional schools or charters. The subtext of his argument was that instructional reform isn't just a market-oriented approach, though with the flexibility accorded to charter schools, it is perhaps more likely to be tested in schools outside the realm of traditional public schools.

Johnson countered less on educational policy and much more on politics. He suggested that public education was \”being eradicated from neighborhoods in our country.\” Citing a concern that market-oriented education reform would be a matter of people \”in a privileged space dictating\” to \”people who seem like me,\” Johnson noted that free public education would be a \”Negro idea,\” the contention of W.E.B. DuBois (referenced in Eugene F. Provenzo's edited 2002 volume, Du Bois on Education, p. 158). Johnson's fundamental argument was that market approaches and philanthropy's involvement through the Walton Family Foundation yet others like the Broad Foundation were fundamentally \”anti-democratic\” and do \”not reflect what black folks desire.\” The shift to market approaches reduces the accountability structures in education, he explained, though he suggested the Broad Foundation, the education-oriented philanthropy of Los Angeles real estate and insurance mogul Eli Broad, was actively trying reduce democratic control by substituting appointed school boards for elected boards.

Johnson and Pondiscio disagreed about whether market-oriented reforms are working, each very briefly referencing research against but for the educational achievements of charter schools, for example, with no real opportunity in the session to talk about the more knowledge about those contradictory assessments. However, Johnson took on one of the uncontested arguments of the Walton Foundation, that school choice helps eradicate poverty, contending rather that the poverty of the family limits the child's use of educational opportunities to begin with. Pondiscio took on the key contention of Johnson's and NCRP's recommendations, suggesting that \”local control [of schools] can be an overrated virtue\” which the issue in schools is a lack of expertise, thus the shortcoming of faculties to craft and implement effective instructional reforms.

The political dynamics implicit in the market-orientation of school choice arose only in side comments. Johnson cited market-oriented approaches being an \”attack on workers\” overall, but as a CTU member, he somewhat surprisingly didn't specifically cite the truth that charter schools and schools generally replace unionized teacher workforces with non-union teachers. The involvement from the Walton Family Foundation in supporting the charter school takeover of public schools in post-Katrina New Orleans is really a powerful just to illustrate, not only in the breaking from the teachers union, however the firing of a significant quantity of black teachers to become replaced by lower-paid, often white Teach for America recruits.

Pondiscio referenced another opening for any more political discussion of the role of charter schools in the school choice agenda. He noted that late Albert Shanker, the longtime president from the American Federation of Teachers, was an advocate of charter schools. Shanker thought that charters could be laboratories for testing new ideas that may then be extended to traditional public schools. An effective counter to Pondiscio's argument could have been that Shanker's concept of charters as would-be \”generators of innovation\” wasn't designed to using them as a parallel, competitive alternative system to public schools, but that did not happen.

In their post-debate commentary, Bezahler suggested that markets are \”wholly inappropriate and destructive\” for public education, reducing collective responsibility for ensuring quality public education overall and shifting the onus to the family to make choices. However, the options often available do not really result in equality. She cited, correctly, information that showed charter schools and private schools have been resulting in more racial segregation rather than less. Actually, the amount in voucher subsidies that families might get to go to private schools are simply about never within the realm of making quality private schools generally affordable to lower-income families, creating deeper amounts of income and racial segregation in education. On Twitter, one attendee quoted Bezahler to possess said, \”This isn't a market of faculties that parents choose, but a market of students that schools choose.\”

Despite Bezahler's move toward a political analysis of the school choice issue, the debate largely centered on whether \”choice\” creates better educational outcomes and greater equality for children who reach attend charter schools and publicly subsidized private schools. In a summary statement by an NCRP staffer, there was a phone call for that Walton Family Foundation's education grantmaking to be more \”inclusive\” and \”adaptive\” such as the foundation's market-oriented environmental grantmaking. Later, by email, an NCRP spokesperson suggested that the insufficient adaption and inclusion was reflected within the foundation's \”education grantmaking-singularly centered on charter schools.\”

The political and pragmatic aspects of the Walton Family Foundation's education agenda escaped the debate. The New Orleans experiment was mentioned only in passing, although it might have been an engaging illustration of the political as well as structural and instructional dimensions of the foundation's advocacy of school choice. There wasn't any discussion of the Walton Family Foundation's funding of advocacy organizations or organizations that promote systemic alternatives to traditional public schools such as the Alliance for college Choice (a lot more than $20 million in the last 10 years), Teach for America (more than $82 million), and also the Black Alliance for Educational Options (around $12 million), simply to name a few from the nationally prominent school \”choice\” or \”privatization\” advocacy organizations.

It might have been the setting: NCRP identifying itself as \”agnostic\” around the role from the market in education reform; the moderator coming from a foundation that, by virtue of shared geography, partners using the Walton Family Foundation; and also the tendency of nonprofits, as NCRP itself has noted elsewhere, to steer clear of criticizing foundations as a result of \”fear to be black-listed or de-funded.\” Philanthropy, as well as the critics of philanthropy, tend toward politeness, helped along through the moderator's debate admonition to avoid \”hair-pulling\” along with other unpleasant possible debate tactics. But the problem might have been the definitions in the debate. A tweet in the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation told us the \”framing terms\” for that debate were these:

The scope of presidency, the influence of corporations in the public sphere, the shifting of faculty management in the public sector to private for-profit management entities, the function of foundations (Broad, Gates, Walton, etc.) in setting the nation's public education agenda through funding government programs to emphasise charter schools (the Race to the Top, etc.), questions of the funders' approaches to the teachers' unions, etc.

[Full disclosure: This author was the writer of the 2007 NCRP report on school privatization called the executive director of NCRP when the 2005 set of the Wal-Mart Foundation and Walton Family Foundation was written.]

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