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Reckhow: Savvy Walton Foundation

This is a guest post from MSU professor Sarah Reckhow.

2013-01-11_0917There's little doubt that education philanthropies are getting deeply involved in helping shape education policy, recruit and train education leaders, and even influence political races. The Gates Foundation has been linked to major education policy initiatives including Race to the Top and the Common Core. The Walton Family Foundation claims to be “the nation’s largest contributor to K-12 education reform groups.” By 2011, 21 of the nation’s 75 largest school districts had top leaders who were trained in the Broad Superintendent’s Academy. 

Taking these accounts at face value, one could assume that education policy at the local, state, and national levels emerges directly from philanthropic headquarters in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Bentonville. But In fact, the big three education philanthropies (Gates, Broad, and Walton) pursue substantially different advocacy strategies.These different strategies affect each foundation’s ability to pick winners—including winning issues, leaders, or organizations—in an uncertain and changing political environment.

Although Gates usually grabs the headlines, credit, and criticism for pulling the strings in education politics, and the Broad Foundation gets the most critical attention from education activists, my money is on Walton as the savviest political operator in education philanthropy.

The Gates Foundation adopts agenda control and messaging that resembles national single-issue interest groups (think AIPAC or NARAL). The foundation selects its agenda priorities, supports (or helps create) grantees aligned with those priorities, and works single-mindedly toward advancing its goals at the local, state, and national levels. However, the Gates strategy is a very high-risk approach for picking political winners. Gates is widely and publicly known for its issue positions, and highly vulnerable to criticism if those positions are called into question.   For example, the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project is linked to hotly contested debates in both the political and academic realms. There is still considerable debate about the relationship between test scores and overall teacher effectiveness, not to mention the behavioral implications of merit pay schemes. Gates has clearly steered the national agenda toward teacher effectiveness, but the foundation has also hitched its reputation to a risky position on a single issue.

The Broad Foundation has pursued a strategy that resembles many national community-organizing networks (think IAF or Gamaliel). The foundation’s signature initiatives—the Broad Superintendent’s Academy and Broad Residency—train leaders who go on to work in urban school districts. Clearly “Broadies” differ from community organizers in many ways—different positions in the political system, different tactics, and different agendas. But Broad leaders are expected to play a transformational role in struggling school districts, much like trained community organizers in struggling neighborhoods. Both the Broad programs and the community organizing networks rely on recruiting and training leaders to develop a national network of influence.

This strategy is less risky than the Gates strategy, although political outcomes are likely to be highly variable. With Broad superintendents and residents working in dozens of school districts, some could become political “winners” in the long run by steering school districts to better outcomes and rising to higher profile positions in education leadership. Meanwhile, others may lead undistinguished careers, or worse, lose their jobs due to underperformance or scandal.

Last but not least, the Walton Family Foundation is something akin to the Super PAC of edu-philanthropies (think American Crossroads or Priorities USA). The Walton foundation is a big funder of education advocacy—around $60 million in 2011—but it is also the quietest funder. Unlike Bill Gates and Eli Broad, there are no members of the Walton family speaking at major national conferences of education groups or sitting for interviews with the media. Walton foundation staff are occasional, rather than frequent, participants as panelists or presenters. Unlike most Super PACs, Walton’s money is traceable, but the foundation does not expend much effort trumpeting its advocacy work.

Walton’s strategy carries the lowest political risks of the big three funders, because the foundation’s role is scarcely visible. Furthermore, Walton is focused on an issue area—school choice—that has been gaining ground politically for decades. Walton can rely on a strong infrastructure of existing organizations and quietly support their work.


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