Walton’s Billion Dollars for Charters

A foundation run by the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton said Thursday it will spend $1 billion over the next five years to improve public education by backing new charter schools and helping programs already up and running.

What to say about this?

Here’s what we know about charters:

One pattern I would observe is that the areas in which charters tend to be highly effective are metropolitan areas with strong unions and a large “reserve pool” of young educated workers who might be deterred by certification requirements or public school bureaucracy. The areas in which charters tend to be ineffective are places like Arizona, Texas, and Arkansas, where the main barriers to school improvement are likely to be the availability of educated workers rather than legal and regulatory barriers to entry. Politics aside, running Success Academy in Harlem (where there are infinite other 22-year-olds standing in the wings when you’ve run through the current batch) is more practical than in Indianapolis or Philly or the Inland Empire. Charter schools in more affluent districts have also shown negative or null effects.

To me, this suggests that philanthropic money (which is already quite ample for the charter operators with a track record of success) will experience diminishing returns, and even breathtaking bequests like this Walton gift will not have inconsistent success.

There may, moreover, be some negative marginal returns to money that makes it easier for charters to start:

  • You get more swindlers and outright fraud
  • If the purpose of charters is innovation, what matters is the average quality of charters, and the number of well-run schools that can collaborate and share practices, not the total quantity of students served by charters. California has a gazillion charters, but disproportionately few successful chains, for example.
  • If you talk to charter operators, they are much less concerned about money than about space– getting a school building to put the kids in. In places like NYC, this has been accomplished by shutting down or displacing existing public schools, but there are serious costs to doing this. The real problem is that nobody can build school buildings anymore (see for example this single school complex in LA that cost more than $500 million to build ).




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