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WATCHDOGS: Foundation funded state agency and 2 schools it saved

Amandla Charter School, 6800 S. Stewart. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

A private foundation started by the late Walmart mogul Sam Walton and his wife has contributed heavily to the Illinois State Charter School Commission and to two charter operators whose schools the state agency has blocked the Chicago Board of Education from closing over poor student performance, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

Even in the complex history of public education in Chicago, the situation involving the two charters, the Chicago Public Schools, the charter commission and the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation is unusual.

For years, CPS has faced criticism for allowing the expansion and taxpayer-financed funding of privately run charters even as it shut down traditional public schools over low enrollment and bad test scores.

Aiming to show it expects charters to meet the same standards as CPS schools, the Board of Ed moved last November to cut off funding for three schools — including the Amandla Charter School in Englewood and Lighthouse Academies’ school in Bronzeville — over poor student performance. The charter commission overruled the Board of Ed and, in March, blocked CPS from closing the schools.

Beside Amandla and the Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School, the commission also saved the Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s Barbara A. Sizemore Campus in Englewood from being closed. The Walton foundation hasn’t donated to Shabazz.

CPS responded later in March by suing the state agency over its ruling, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s schools chief, Forrest Claypool, called “ill-advised and destructive.”

Over the past 20 years, the Walton foundation has given more than $45 million to educational groups in Illinois, including charter schools and the state commission that regulates them, records examined by the Sun-Times show.

The biggest recipients were the Chicago-based IFF — which helps charter schools finance construction projects and got more than $9 million — and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, an advocacy group that’s received about $8 million.

The Illinois charter operator that benefited most from Walton grants was the UNO Charter School Network, which got more than $3.5 million from the foundation. Its last grant was in 2012 — a year before Sun-Times reports exposed a contracting scandal involving the politically connected charter operator.

Though the commission is a government agency, its initial funding came from private organizations and individuals, including the Walton foundation. Current and former commission leaders say they sought grants because state lawmakers didn’t provide funding when they created the agency.

Greg Richmond. Sun-Times file photo

Greg Richmond. Sun-Times file photo

“In no way did the Walton Family Foundation influence, seek to influence or even communicate to the commission about its decisions,” says Greg Richmond, chairman of the state commission when it got the Walton grant.

Richmond is the chief executive of the Chicago-based National Association for Charter School Authorizers, which got $2.15 million from the Walton foundation in 2015, according to the foundation’s website.

Anyone who wants to open a charter — and get the taxpayer funding available to operate a campus, thanks to government provisions for “school choice” — first must apply to the local school district. It isn’t necessarily a fatal blow, though, to be rejected or to have a district later move to pull a charter.

When they created the charter commission, Illinois lawmakers gave it the authority to hear appeals from charter applicants and overrule local districts.

The foundation gave $50,000 to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools for the launch of the Illinois charter agency in 2011. The Walton organization gave $300,000 more directly to the state commission the following three years. That $350,000 represented the majority of the start-up funding the commission received.

The Walton foundation has given $500,000 to Amandla, 6800 S. Stewart Ave., according to the foundation’s public filings with the Internal Revenue Service and records from the charter operator.

Walton’s first $250,000 to Amandla came during the Englewood school’s first year in operation, 2007-08. More than $205,000 of that went to “administrative wages” for Amandla’s executive director, dean of students and office manager, school records show. The foundation gave the school another $250,000 in 2012 when it expanded into high school grades.

Amandla goes from fifth grade through high school and has 320 students this school year. It got a total of $3.81 million in funding via CPS for the budget year that ended June 30, 2015.

Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School, 8 W. Root. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School, 8 W. Root. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

Walton also was a major contributor to Lighthouse Academies, which manages 19 schools in seven states from its base in Wesley Chapel, Florida, including the Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School at 8 W. Root St. Administrators of the high school in Bronzeville say they have no record of receiving money directly from the Walton foundation. But the foundation’s IRS filings show it gave nearly $3.4 million to the parent Lighthouse Academies from 2005 to 2013.

Lighthouse’s Bronzeville school had 441 students this year, from grades 9 through 12. It got a total of $4.15 million through CPS for the last budget year.

Hosanna Mahaley-Jones. | LinkedIn photo

Hosanna Mahaley-Jones. | LinkedIn photo

Hosanna Mahaley-Jones, the executive director of the state charter commission, says the Walton foundation funding played no role in the decisions to override CPS and keep the Walton-supported schools open this year. In fact, Mahaley-Jones says, she wasn’t even aware of the contributions from Walton to Amandla and Lighthouse Academies until told by a Sun-Times reporter.

“As part of the commission’s process for looking at appeals, we don’t look at past funding sources, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a conflict for us,” says Mahaley-Jones, who was Arne Duncan’s chief of staff when Duncan was CPS’ chief executive officer.

She says the commission blocked the school closings because CPS “did not follow the agreements they had with the charter schools. The recent decisions were fact-based, not based on relationships and not based on politics.”

State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, who is the main sponsor of a stalled proposal in Springfield to strip the commission of the power to second-guess school districts, says, “People should be legitimately concerned to have a state commission receiving funding from outside of the state and then making decisions on local schools.”

Welch says that when he introduced the legislation in 2015, CPS wasn’t supportive, but, “I’ve heard from them more than once that now they see the error of their ways.”

CPS officials declined to comment

The state agency’s $600,000 yearly budget comes entirely from fees paid by schools it approved and regulates, according to Mahaley-Jones, who says there are no plans to seek further grants from the Walton foundation or any other private sources beyond the charter schools.

The Walton foundation has funded charter schools since 1997 and has been involved with hundreds of schools in about two dozen states, though it’s said it plans to curtail donations for new charters in Illinois, citing unfriendly political conditions.

A Walton official who oversees school grants for the foundation says it took no position on the Illinois commission’s action to save the two Walton-funded schools from the threatened CPS ax. “There’s no Walton conspiracy here,” Marc Sternberg says.

Sternberg says the Walton foundation funded the commission “so educators who want to start great schools — who are prohibited for bad reasons — have a way to rise above politics and start high-quality schools.”

The lawsuit over the CPS decision to close the charters isn’t the first time the Chicago school system and the state charter commission have been at odds. In 2012, the commission overrode CPS’ rejection of charter applications for two new campuses from Des Plaines-based Concept Schools. The FBI has said it has an ongoing investigation into allegations of grant fraud involving Concept.

To help evaluate proposals from would-be charter operators, the commission has occasionally hired officials of local schools — including two Lighthouse Academies employees.

Phyllis Goodson, a regional vice president for Lighthouse, was among the most passionate voices supporting the Bronzeville school at the commission meeting at which the campus was spared from closing. The commission employed Goodson as a part-time consultant in 2014 and 2015 to evaluate charter schools appeals, renewals and applications, paying her a total of $22,250, according to state records.

Goodson says she sees no conflict of interest because there’s been great turnover at the commission since she did most of her consulting work for it.

“Most of the commissioners on there now, I did not work for them,” Goodson says.

Mahaley-Jones, the state agency’s director, says, “I don’t think anybody would be precluded from appealing to the commission because they have done some consulting for the commission.”