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Learning Curve

  • An F for transparency
    “Look at this shiny thing over here!” – Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, Oct. 14, 2014.

Education philanthropy? Hardly

Politicians pushing education "reform" laws want you to believe the movement steamrolling across the U.S. springs from a grassroots discontent with public schools. Certainly, there are school districts – particularly in major cities – where students aren't being well served by the status quo and changes are needed. The most effective change, however, would be a comprehensive plan to attack the very roots of poverty: Access to health care – including prenatal care; housing and employment policies that promote family stability; quality early childhood education and other assistance to allow schools to focus on learning.

Those aren't the changes, however, that are emerging from the reform movement. Instead, they focus on "fixing" schools, primarily with assistance of for-profit outfits or by weakening collective bargaining rights for teachers. The push for reform comes from many who stand to profit from those changes or who seem intent on discrediting public education as a means of attacking organized labor. Among the most prominent of the "reformers" is the Walton Family Foundation, whose education reform grants for 2011 totaled almost $160 million. The grant recipients include a number of Indiana-based groups:

Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, $565,000

Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, $380,000

School Choice Indiana, $200,000

Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, $250,000

Christel House, $30,000

Goodwill Education Initiatives, $500,000

The Mind Trust, $500,000

Indiana Department of Education, $25,000

University of Notre Dame, $761,000

Those figures are in addition to the campaign contributions Walton family members have made to pro-voucher, anti-union PACs influencing Indiana education policy. Indiana campaign finance reports show Alice Walton alone has contributed almost $413,000 since 2010.

Another Indiana blogger asked recently if it was naïve to believe that the uber-rich donating to school reform causes were doing so because they themselves had access to good schools and wanted to help others. Well, yes – it is. The Walton Family Foundation's gifts are strategically aimed at pro-voucher, anti-union initiatives. If the foundation board members were truly interested in helping poor children, the grants would be aimed at eliminating poverty – the real culprit behind failing schools.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at