An Interview with Jim Blew: The Walton Family Foundation

Jul 5, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Jim, I understand the Walton Family Foundation has announced that more than 150 million went to K-12 education reform initiatives for 2010. What are you trying to accomplish?

We make our investments with the goal of expanding the right of all parents to have access to quality schools, regardless of type. Our belief is that when all parents have the ability to choose among quality schools for their children, a competitive dynamic emerges that can inspire all schools to get better. The foundation is ramping up its investments, as they increased $23 million from 2009, when we gave $134 million to education reform causes. This is also a seven-fold increase from just over 10 years ago, when the foundation gave $20 million to education reform causes (2000).

2) Part of your grant is to enable parents in low income communities to choose among quality publicly funded schools for their children- does this include charter schools, parochial schools, and private schools?

It includes all of these, as well as traditional public schools and reform-minded school districts. Our grant making is based around three initiatives; shaping public policy, creating quality schools and improving existing schools. We designed these three initiatives to work together in order to get the broader public school system to improve. Shaping public policy can accelerate the creation of new, quality schools. In turn, students and families in the new schools can help shape public policy, and the practices in new quality schools can be transferred to existing schools.

3) What are the 7 regions that you are focusing on? Why?

We focus on seven regions throughout the nation that serve high concentrations of low-income families and that desperately need more high-quality schools. They include Albany, Denver, East and South Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Newark and Washington, D.C. We’re optimistic about some of the improvements that we’ve seen so far, as thousands of kids have been able to enroll in the school of their choice in these key regions.

For example, the foundation started investing in New Orleans schools following Hurricane Katrina, and today we have an environment where 70 percent of public school students attend public charter schools. While we still have a long way to go, reform efforts there are inspiring the broader New Orleans schools to improve, as the proficiency gap between the city and the rest of the state is rapidly closing.

In Washington, D.C., where we’ve invested for more than 10 years, today more than two-thirds of district families are choosing a charter, private or district school other than the one assigned to them by their zip code. Between 2003 and 2009, DC experienced some of the largest achievement gains in the nation for an urban school district.

4) Are there any specific areas (science, math, reading) that you are focusing on?

Our focus is on increasing parental choice by giving them access to quality schools. We’re agnostic about pedagogical approach, just as we’re agnostic on type of school. The Walton family cares only about quality and results. In order for choice to be successful, parents must have access to quality options.  So much of our work stems around expanding parental choice, creating new and autonomous high-quality schools, and providing parents with the information they need to make informed choices.

5) What other organizations are involved?

Naturally, we work closely with our local, state and national grantees. We also work closely with many local, state and national foundations that have similar goals as ours, which in some cases includes co-investing in grantees.

6) In your mind, what is the Federal government NOT doing that it should be doing?

What we share with the federal department of education is their sense of urgency regarding the need to raise student achievement, particularly in low-income communities all across the country. They recognize that there are too many students and families who do not have access to quality schools in our country and seem to be prioritizing resources to change that. But, the federal government isn’t our focus. Our work is highly focused on states, school districts and local communities, where 90% of the funding for public education is generated. That said, the federal government’s support for giving families more choices through high-quality public charter schools is very powerful and welcome.

7) Is there a web site to get more information?

Interested individuals can go to http://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org/, where they can find more detailed information regarding our theory of change, our grant making initiatives, investment strategies and evaluation metrics.

Jim Blew leads the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education reform efforts. Visit http://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org/.

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