May 09, 2018

The Privatization Cabal active in Massachusetts education politics experienced all sorts of problems in 2016 (as the Walton Family’s postmortem showed) but one problem wasn’t lack of money. Nor is it a problem today – there’s lots of money. So let’s take a look at Outside Upstream Money coming from the Walton Family Foundation and Inside Upstream Money coming from Strategic Grant Partners.

Upstream privatization money is deployed leading up to a political campaign and does not have to be reported to state regulatory authorities (unless it is used for lobbying). It can be used for think tanks, advocacy, organizing, and education. Walton money is out of state, thus Outside Money; Strategic Grant Partners is Boston-based, thus Inside Money.

The following tables offer a selective view of WFF and SGP spending, limited to organizations that have a fundamentally political character or are integrally involved such as the Massachusetts Public Charters Schools Association. Thus I omit spending on Teach for America, but I include spending for its offshoot Leadership for Education Equity which provides campaign training and fund raising network activities for TFA alumni. (Is it better for TFA/LEE to have a teacher for two years or an elected official for a decade or two? The question answers itself).

I’ve also limited the years covered from 2014, the year SGP funded FES’s introduction to Massachusetts to prepare for the charters campaign, through 2016 the year of the ballot measure and last year for which Form 990 tax returns are available. WFF reports on a calendar year. SGP reports on a fiscal year basis, so its 2016 return covers the period from July 1, 2016-June 30, 2017.

Walton Family Foundation

Strategic Grant Partners

Great minds, right? All of these organizations except the Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association and Pioneer Institute also conduct operations in other states, so keep that in mind. The only grant to Pioneer was from WFF in 2015, coincidentally the year Pioneer hosted a forum “exploring the conflicting interests of the teachers unions and the largely minority communities often served by charter schools.” Educators for Excellence is an operation that attempts to draw young teachers away from established unions. Another interesting donee is Education Reform Now, which cashes checks from the Waltons and then writes checks to Democrats for Education Reform, including DFER Massachusetts. It places a putatively Democratic organization on the payroll of the conservative Walton Family.

The Waltons and SGP also provided downstream money for the 2016 charters campaign. WalMart heirs and cousins Jim and Alice Walton contributed at least $2.585 million; $750K of that was dark. SGP members kicked in $8.15 million in dark money to Great Schools Massachusetts through Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, and about another $400,000 on the books in 2015.   But perhaps we’ll never have a true final tally for SGP. For example SGP member Paul Edgerley gave $1,000,000 to FES Inc. in 2016 and we might surmise but not know for certain that Edgerley’s money was part of FESI’s $3.7 million dark money contribution to FESA. (And probably more SGP money too, but it’s too tough to explain right now). Not to mention $500k in dark money that came in from Andrew Balson, who for some time worked at an education non-profit startup named Match Beyond, which coincidentally received funding from Strategic Grant Partners.  

Back to upstream money in 2017. WFF funds Stand for Children, which is again organizing politically in Massachusetts after maintaining a low profile in 2015-2016. SGP did not appear to be funding it as of June 30, 2017, but SGP and its members did fund Stand’s Massachusetts political activities in 2011-2013. LEE, E4E, and DFER MA are all active politically in Massachusetts today. And then there is Walton Family subsidiary Massachusetts Parents United, which also is funded by other 2016 dark money givers.

I know. It confuses me, too. But this is what happens when rich people hire smart people to hide what they don’t want us to know.

"Why wait for popular opinion to catch up when you could portray as ‘reform’ what was really slow-motion demolition through privatization?" – Professor Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Plan for America.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. In fact, the Massachusetts Teachers Association gave me its President’s Award in May 2018, and you can read my acceptance remarks here. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]

Strategic Grant Partners, Massachusetts Parents United, Walton Family Foundation

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