The Chicago Sun-Times reported on a startling conflict of interest.
The rightwing, anti-union Walton Family Foundation has been funding the Illinois State Charter School Commission, a state agency, as well as many charter schools in Illinois. When the Chicago Public Schools recommended closing two charter schools because of their poor performance, the Commission blocked the closing. The two failing charters were also funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
Have you ever heard of a public agency that relied for funding on a private foundation with a political agenda of privatization?
Reporters Dan Mihalopoulos and Lauren FitzPatrick write:
A private foundation started by the late Walmart mogul Sam Walton and his wife has contributed heavily to the Illinois State Charter School Commission and to two charter operators whose schools the state agency has blocked the Chicago Board of Education from closing over poor student performance, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Even in the complex history of public education in Chicago, the situation involving the two charters, the Chicago Public Schools, the charter commission and the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation is unusual.
Unusual is an understatement.
For years, CPS has faced criticism for allowing the expansion and taxpayer-financed funding of privately run charters even as it shut down traditional public schools over low enrollment and bad test scores.
Aiming to show it expects charters to meet the same standards as CPS schools, the Board of Ed moved last November to cut off funding for three schools — including the Amandla Charter School in Englewood and Lighthouse Academies’ school in Bronzeville — over poor student performance. The charter commission overruled the Board of Ed and, in March, blocked CPS from closing the schools.
Beside Amandla and the Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School, the commission also saved the Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s Barbara A. Sizemore Campus in Englewood from being closed. The Walton foundation hasn’t donated to Shabazz.
CPS responded later in March by suing the state agency over its ruling, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s schools chief, Forrest Claypool, called “ill-advised and destructive.”
Over the past 20 years, the Walton foundation has given more than $45 million to educational groups in Illinois, including charter schools and the state commission that regulates them, records examined by the Sun-Times show.
The biggest recipients were the Chicago-based IFF — which helps charter schools finance construction projects and got more than $9 million — and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, an advocacy group that’s received about $8 million.
The Illinois charter operator that benefited most from Walton grants was the UNO Charter School Network, which got more than $3.5 million from the foundation. Its last grant was in 2012 — a year before Sun-Times reports exposed a contracting scandal involving the politically connected charter operator.
Though the commission is a government agency, its initial funding came from private organizations and individuals, including the Walton foundation. Current and former commission leaders say they sought grants because state lawmakers didn’t provide funding when they created the agency.
Members of the commission insisted that they were not influenced by the Walton Family Foundation to stop the closure of the two Walton-funded charter schools.
Whether they were or they were not, it is strange to see a state agency underwritten by the sponsor of the organizations that the agency is supposed to regulate. A classic example of regulatory capture.