A recent Forbes profile highlights the work of Carrie Walton Penner, the Walton family’s “point person on education issues” and a major proponent of charter schools. Carrying the name of a family that has given over $350 million in seed money to more than 1,600 American charter schools (25 percent of the charter schools in the country), Mrs. Walton Penner controls some very important purse-strings.
The profile discusses a number of interesting points, like: how Penner first became interested in education policy (tutoring underprivileged D.C. youths while studying at Georgetown), the structure of the Walton philanthropic empire (with each child or spouse deputized to take the lead on a particular policy area—education, environmentalism, art, etc.), and the sort of resistance Penner gets from the typical anti-charter cadre of public university academics and union bosses.
Most interestingly, Penner has, by her own admission, “evolved a bit” on the question of school strategy. Whereas in previous years she had repeatedly stressed "choice" as the watchword of her education policy—she sends her four children to four different private schools based on a fine-tuned sense of what’s best for each of them—she now talks about “accountability and reach” as the major guideposts for Walton philanthropic giving. This makes sense, of course—school choice is not simply sufficient for optimizing student performance (unfortunately, this is sometimes the impression given by advocates of school choice). The Forbes article cites a recent Stanford University study that found that 19 percent of charter school students did worse than their school district counterparts in reading tests and 31 percent fared worse in math. Penner wants to shut down underperforming charter schools, having closed more than 200 already, and with plans to close another 700 by 2017. This approach goes hand in hand with efforts to strategically target key midsize cities in order to expand the reach of the charter system.
Again, accountability and reach seem perfectly reasonable goals for advocates of the charter school movement, and Penner is surely right that choice doesn’t mean much if charter schools don’t actually offer a better education than the typical public school.
But the whole process, like much in the world of Big Philanthropy today, can’t help but smack of corporate-ese. Setting benchmarks, “incentiviz[ing] . . . a diversity of models,” meeting quotas, and securing "buy-ins from major stakeholders" are all good as far as they go, but don't ultimately provide much help in educating students in the deeper and more subtle things, like citizenship or morality.
The Forbes article mentions in passing that Sam and Helen Walton first became interested in funding education as a response to Soviet-backed schools in Central America during the Cold War. It is a sign of how professionalized and uniform educational policy has become—even amongst proponents of school choice—that such considerations are now either seen as quaint or irrelevant. While we can collect data to show whether or not students are learning their multiplication tables, it is harder to test the moral, social, and political formation that is (or isn’t) taking place in most schools today—charter or not. The moral and political challenges facing the next generation are arguably even greater today than they were during the Cold War, yet our most visible education reformers talk little about these particular challenges.
Penner is right about one thing, at least: we cannot look to an empty concept of "choice" to fill the moral vacuum at the heart of public education today. The substance of the thing matters as much as the (admittedly essential) choice to pursue it, and Big Philanthropy outfits like the Walton Family Foundation, for all the good they do, cannot be expected to be particularly agile in furtherance of these broader cultural goals.
Of course, there is a key role here for local educational units from explicit confessional backgrounds to step in and offer a choice for parents who want schools that speak with specificity to moral and social values. Parochial schools have traditionally filled this role quite well, providing a unified learning model that doesn’t just move a student through a curriculum, but requires further reflection on questions of ultimate importance. These environments have become more rare, however, as Catholic schools struggle to stay afloat in the face of historically low rates of giving by the faithful. This Economist article from June highlights Giving USA’s 2014 report, which, like the 2013 report, observed that the proportion of American charity going to churches is smaller than it ever has been. (The amount is somewhere north of a $100 billion, more than any year in the past, but that number represents just about 30 percent of overall American philanthropic giving.)
If Carrie Penner gets her way—and the trends seem to point in her direction—the educational marketplace will get more competitive in coming years. In pursuit of the necessary academic standards, Catholic and other faith-based schools ought not to abdicate their unique responsibility to values-based education. More than anything else, this involves parishioners providing serious and sustained financial support to the schools in their dioceses. Thus proper tithing is not only a responsibility of the faithful, but a sure way to give parents a choice worth making when considering their children’s educations.