Amid fierce debate over whether charter schools are good for black students, the heirs to the Walmart company fortune have been working to make inroads with advocates and influential leaders in the black community.
The Walton family, as the leading supporters of America's charter school movement, is spreading its financial support to prominent and like-minded black leaders, from grassroots groups focused on education to mainstream national organizations such as the United Negro College Fund and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, according to an Associated Press analysis of tax filings and non-profit grants data.
"Those closest to the challenge often have the best solution," Marc Sternberg, who leads the Walton Family Foundation's education efforts, said in a prepared statement.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large back populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools. Black enrollment in charters has doubled over the course of a decade, to more than 760,000 students as of 2015-16, according to the latest federal data, but the rise also has been marked by concerns about racial segregation, inconsistent student outcomes, and the hollowing-out of neighborhood public schools.
While some black leaders see charters as a safer, better alternative in their communities, a deep rift of opinion was exposed by a 2016 call for a moratorium on charters by the NAACP, a longtime skeptic that expressed concerns about school privatization, transparency and accountability issues. The Black Lives Matter movement is also among those that have demanded charter school growth be curbed.
When NAACP leaders gathered to discuss charters in 2016, a group of demonstrators led the hotel to complain to police that they were trespassing. The three buses that brought the 150 black parents from Tennessee on the 14-hour road trip were provided by The Memphis Lift, an advocacy group that has received $1.5 million from the Walton foundation since 2015.
Deidra Brooks, chief of staff for The Memphis Lift, said they were not asked by Walton to carry out the protest and declined to say how much of their budget came from the foundation. The start-up advocacy group seeded by Walton money also provides parents school choice counseling and advocacy training.
Much like other deep-pocketed billionaire philanthropists, the Waltons embrace education reform as an avenue to help the neediest. The foundation is in the midst of a $1 billion pledge dedicated to expanding charters, which they see as investments to find better ways to educate those who struggle in traditional school systems.
Andre Perry, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the Walton foundation's reliance on black faces to makes its case for charters suggests that they're exploiting black people for a "white agenda."
"It's a sad thing that education reform is about how much money you have and not about what connection you have with black communities," Perry said.
Much of the $9 million granted to the United Negro College Fund has been spent on the scholarship organization's fellowship program for students interested in education reform. Likewise, the Waltons in recent years gave $170,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to sponsor education policy advocacy and campaign training workshops.
And Walton money totals nearly $2 million to the 100 Black Men of America campaign and $7.3 million to the National Urban League. Both groups have strong ties to charter schools on the ground.
The Waltons have given small amounts to other kinds of black community groups, as well, including the New England Blacks in Philanthropy organization, the Association of Black Foundation Executives and the National Black Child Development Institute.
And this year, the foundation sponsored a luncheon at a Detroit conference for the National Association of Black Journalists, which was advertised as "The Importance of Educating our Black Children" and primarily featured Walton's pro-charter grantees as panel speakers.
"Of course we've seen push back from people in general, but that goes with privatization. The forces of privatization are powerful and have friends in all sorts of places," said Victor Goode, the NAACP's education director.
After the NAACP proposed the moratorium, Walton money had a hand in the highly publicized debate that followed. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group that has received more than $16 million from Walton, organized a campaign that urged the NACCP to reconsider, including a letter signed by more than 160 black education leaders.
Among them was prominent charter advocate Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee schools superintendent. The Waltons gave $17 million to his now-defunct advocacy group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
Another outspoken critic of the moratorium idea, Chris Stewart, leads the Wayfinder Foundation, an advocacy group that has received nearly $2 million from Walton. He's suggested that the country's oldest civil rights group was in the pocket of teacher union interests, an issue he pushed using the #FreeTheNAACP hashtag online.
"In any city, if you're advocating for charters, you are out of your depth. There's no way you are going to match the number of foot soldiers who are going to support an anti-charter narrative," Stewart said of the public teacher unions who stand to lose with non-unionized schools.
Sternberg of the Walton foundation said any aggressive acts of advocacy its grantees take in the debate are rooted in the impatience over a century of educational inequity for blacks. The foundation also points to $120,000 in grants it has given to the NAACP in the past two years for event sponsorship, and its support of other black civil rights groups over the past 25 years.
"This is not our agenda," Sternberg said. "This is way bigger than us."