Education

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Introduction

Before considering the specific goals and activities of these foundations, it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.[1]

– Diane Ravitch, education historian and Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush

When the richest family in the country inserts itself into the education policy debate, ordinary Americans have reason to be concerned. Why should one family’s overwhelmingly deep pockets give them the right to play such an outsized role in determining how the next generation of American students is educated? What are they really trying to accomplish?

Why do the Waltons care about education?

While John Walton said in February 2000 that he believed the greatest responsibility facing the country was to provide a “world-class education” for all children,[2] recent comments from his wife suggest that the family’s original motive for becoming involved in education policy may have been less lofty.

In a June 2011 speech to the graduating class of the private school her son Lukas attended, Christy Walton explained that her family became involved in K-12 education reform because their business—presumably Walmart—“was having trouble finding qualified people to fill entry-level positions” and because the family believed that “the education being provided [in public schools] had been dummied [sic] down.”

Who’s involved? Who are they connected to?

Through their foundation, the Walton family has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote charter schools and private schools, and family members are involved in many prominent national organizations pursuing this agenda. Get to know the family members most involved in this work:

  • John Walton: Until his death in 2005, John Walton coordinated the education work of his family and family’s foundation.[3] Most notably, he and the late Republican financier Ted Forstmann co-founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which funds private school educations for low-income children[4], and he assisted in the creation of the right-wing advocacy group Alliance for School Choice.[5]  He was also a shareholder in a for-profit school development company [6] that went bankrupt in 2006.[7]
  • Carrie Walton Penner: Penner, who graduated from a private boarding school and attended two elite universities,[8] sits on the boards of the KIPP Foundation[9]  (to which the Walton Family Foundation recently gave $25 million[10]) and the California Charter Schools Association.[11] She is also on the boards of the Alliance for School Choice[12]—a  voucher advocacy group—and its lobbying and political affiliate.[13] Penner has a degree from the Stanford University School of Education, but has apparently never worked on the front line of education as a teacher.[14]
  • Greg Penner: Greg Penner, Carrie Walton Penner’s husband, is on the National Board of Directors for Teach for America, and is a director of the Charter Growth Fund,[15] a “non-profit venture capital fund” investing charter in schools.[16]
  • Christy Walton: Christy Walton is now the co-chair of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which her late husband co-founded.[17]
  • Annie Proietti: Jim Walton’s daughter, Annie Walton Proietti, works for a KIPP school in Denver.[18]

What are they trying to accomplish? What are they funding?

The Walton Family Foundation states on its website that it seeks to “infuse competitive pressure into America’s K-12 education system by increasing the quantity and quality of school choices available to parents, especially in low-income communities.”[19] Between 2005 and 2010, the Walton Family Foundation gave nearly $700 million to education reform organizations.[20]  Specifically, the family provides lavish funding for voucher programs, charter schools, and policy and advocacy groups devoted to establishing and promoting alternatives to public schooling.

In addition, the Walton Family Foundation finances education studies whose findings reinforce the family’s positions on education reform. In January 2012, The Washington Post reported[21] on a new study done by Illinois-based IFF, a “regional nonprofit community development financial institution”[22] that identifies itself as a “stakeholder” in the charter school movement,[23] and funded with a $100,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation.[24]  Considering the source of this study, it is perhaps unsurprising that the study called for the closure of over 30 public schools in the city and the expansion of charter schools.[25]

While the family funds charter schools, it seems clear that its real interest lies with voucher programs, a mechanism for school privatization through which public tax dollars can be diverted to private institutions. The late John Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, was recognized by Business Week in February 2000 as “a leading advocate for using ‘consumer choice’ to reform America’s schools”—that is, through the use of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers.[26] Indeed, the family apparently began working on charter schools as a sort of compromise, only after it became clear that privatization of schools was a very controversial idea.[27]

The family is active in education policy outside of its foundation, too—for example, by injecting money into local political races, often far from where they live:

  • Wisconsin: Many of the Walmart heirs have furthered their interests in school privatization by funding Republican candidates for state office in Wisconsin, a state none of them lives in. As the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported in September 2011, six members of the family were among the top 10 individual contributors to winning state legislative candidates in the 2010 elections that put Republicans in control of the state government. Under the first budget passed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-majority legislature, funding for public schools was cut by $800 million over two years, while funding for voucher programs that funnel public money to private schools increased by $17 million over two years. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has the first and largest voucher program in the country, and the Walton Family Foundation provides substantial funding to School Choice Wisconsin, the state’s primary advocate for vouchers.[28]
  • Louisiana: In October 2011, Carrie and Greg Penner, who live in California, each donated $5,000 to Kira Orange Jones, a candidate for the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).[29] Orange Jones, the Teach for America head in New Orleans who was elected to the BESE in this fall’s election, is said to have “[run] as the embodiment of post-Katrina reform efforts in New Orleans”[30]—reform efforts that have been focused on charter schools and school privatization. Greg Penner is on the board of Teach for America.[31]
  • California: In 2006, Greg Penner contributed $250,000 to a campaign against proposed Proposition 82.[32] The proposition, sponsored by actor and director Rob Reiner, sought to establish a universal preschool system in California for four-year-olds by placing an additional income tax on individuals making more than $400,000 a year, and couples making in excess of $800,000.[33]

 

Why is this a problem?

In her most recent book, education historian Diane Ravitch, Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush and a former supporter of charters and vouchers,[34] clearly articulates the problem with Walton-style education philanthropy:

These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.[35]

The Waltons and the Walton Family Foundation have gargantuan financial resources and can exert undue influence on politicians and public policy issues of their choosing. No matter where people come down on the issues of education reform or school choice, we can all agree it is unfair that the Walton family gets to dictate the future of public education because of the amount of money at its disposal, and to do so in a way that is unaccountable to the public.

Remember, too, that the Waltons—white, rural, and mind-bogglingly wealthy—pursue their education reform goals in low-income, urban communities where the student populations consist largely of children of color. When a profoundly privileged family seeks to engage in philanthropy in historically marginalized communities that they are not part of, the lack of accountability is even more troubling.

The Waltons and their foundation have reaped billions and billions of dollars from a ruthless business model that relies on Walmart jobs being insecure and unstable jobs, with low wages, skimpy benefits, and little respect in the workplace. Their company has helped create a world where parents have to work two or more jobs, with unstable hours to make ends meet.  They’ve helped create a world where parents struggle with choices like paying rent, putting food on the table or taking a sick child to the doctor. And now the Waltons want to tell us how to fix our schools? The Walmart model has made its impact on much of the world. But, for many, the Walmartization of our schools is one step too far.

 

 


[1] Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 200-201.

[2] “John Walton: ‘Making a World-Class Education Available to Every Child,’” Bloomberg

Businessweek, February 7, 2000, http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_06/b3667008.htm

[3] “A Quiet Family Fund Creates a Loud Buzz,” Caroline Preston, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, February 20, 2011, http://philanthropy.com/article/The-Quiet-Walton-Family-Fund/126421/

[4] “Theodore Forstmann, Private Equity Pioneer, Is Dead at 71,” Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times, November 20, 2011, http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/theodore-forstmann-private-equity-pioneer-is-dead-at-71/; “Founders – Children’s Scholarship Fund,” http://www.scholarshipfund.org/drupal1/?q=founders.

[5] “The Carnegie of School Choice,” Joanne Jacobs, Philanthropy Roundtable, September/October 2005, http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/the_carnegie_of_school_choice

[6] Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. proxy statement dated April 18, 1997, http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/104169/0000104169-97-000002.txt and “Wal-Marting Philanthropy,” Bill Berkowitz, October 22, 2004, http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/1022-01.htm

[8] 2009 Annual Report of Giving, for The Governor’s Academy: http://www.gda.org/uploaded/Giving/Annual_Reports/2009_Annual_report.pdf; “Carrie Walton Penner,” http://www.calcharters.org/about/board/carrie-walton-penner.html; “Teaching Arkansas Children Well,” Stanford Magazine, March/April 2002, http://www.davidfetterman.com/arkansasstanfordmagazine.htm

[12] “Alliance for School Choice,” http://www.allianceforschoolchoice.org/leadership

[13] “American Federation for Children – Leadership,” http://www.federationforchildren.org/leadership

[14] Her bio for the California Charter School Association indicates that she has never held a teaching position: “California Charter Schools Association: The Association: Our Team: The Board,” http://twiststudio.net/ccsa/association/ourteam-board.html#bio

[15] “Charter School Growth Fund – Who We Are – Board,” http://www.chartergrowthfund.org/who.board.html

[16] “Charter School Growth Fund – Who We Are – Overview,” http://www.chartergrowthfund.org/who.overview.html

[17] “Theodore Forstmann, Private Equity Pioneer, Is Dead at 71,” Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times, November 20, 2011, http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/theodore-forstmann-private-equity-pioneer-is-dead-at-71/; “Founders – Children’s Scholarship Fund,” http://www.scholarshipfund.org/drupal1/?q=founders.

[18] http://volunteer.du.edu/index.cfm?page=main.oppSearchDetail&agencyID=100

[19] “Education Reform,” http://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org/educationreform

[20] Based on reports of grant funding in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 on the Walton Family Foundation website (and archived versions of the website from the Internet Archive, http://www.archive.org).

[21] “Many public schools in D.C.’s poorest area should be transformed or shut, study says; more charters recommended,” Bill Turque, The Washington Post, January 26, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/2012/01/24/gIQAXI9sRQ_story.html

[22] “About IFF,” http://www.iff.org/about-iff

[23] “Policy and Research,” http://www.iff.org/policy-and-research

[24] “Many public schools in D.C.’s poorest area should be transformed or shut, study says; more charters recommended,” Bill Turque, The Washington Post, January 26, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/2012/01/24/gIQAXI9sRQ_story.html

[25] “Many public schools in D.C.’s poorest area should be transformed or shut, study says; more charters recommended,” Bill Turque, The Washington Post, January 26, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/2012/01/24/gIQAXI9sRQ_story.html

[26] John Walton: ‘Making a World-Class Education Available to Every Child,’” Bloomberg

Businessweek, February 7, 2000, http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_06/b3667008.htm

[27] See Christy Walton’s June 2011 speech: “So in California, where we were living at that time, we began to work on vouchers, and that’s the full choice, where money follows the child, so whatever public or private school you decide and determine that your child needs to attend. And there was such a battle that there was a compromise made, and that gave us the public charter schools that we have today, that are in many, many states. And these public schools offer some options to the conventional system. But they’re still not as innovative and successful overall as the majority of private schools.”

[28] “The selling of school choice,” Bill Lueders, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, September 18, 2011. Available online at http://www.wisconsinwatch.org/2011/09/18/school-choice-part-1/.

[29] Louisiana Board of Ethics Campaign Finance Portal search, 12/09/11

[30] “Kira Orange Jones elected to BESE,” Andrew Vanacore, the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), November 19, 2011. http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/11/kira_orange_jones_elected_to_b.html

[31] “Boards – Teach for America,” http://www.teachforamerica.org/about-us/boards/

[32] Followthemoney.org, California Contributions Report. Accessed 20 May 2011.

[33] Furillo, Andy, “Election Law Election law quirk spurs protests; Preschool initiative backers want to know where foes got funds.” Sacramento Bee. 3 May 2006.

[34] “Why I Changed My Mind, Diane Ravitch, The Nation, May 27, 2010, http://www.thenation.com/article/why-i-changed-my-mind

[35] Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 200-201.

Comments

  1. Shane Kenyon says:

    The Walton’s should foster “consumer choice” by closing Wal*Mart’s so that small businesses can thrive. I’m sick of the poor-quality crap they sell there. My second option is usually Amazon. This has been a disaster over the past decade – not long ago there were a lot more choices of where to shop and the prices were about on par with Wal*Mart. Small business owners had good, middle class livelyhoods and taught their workers about the products. At Wal*Mart the managers don’t know anything about their products and don’t even think about training the staff. And they certainly cannot make a comfortable middle class life – no wonder the Walton’s have so much more money than everyone else, they’ve captured all the local wealth of small business owners and their employees. I don’t want “consumer choice” in public schools, I want “consumer choice” in the economy! Obama, Bust this Trust!

  2. Excellent source of information on the WalMart Waltons.

  3. james says:

    i read your artical on how wall mart and the walton famliy deals with edu. and i dont feel the same as you do on the part ” what is the problem” part of the artical that diane ravitch stated. and the way the artical read she wrote, even though everyone is entitled to their opinion. myself i came from a lower class family and went through several different homes i didnt get a great ed.but their meaning the” walton family” inspired me so much that i put my life on hold to better my edu. to hope to get a better start on life, and because i need to work to support myself and my home that i’m currently enrolling in online courses to complete after work and i would like to work for their corp. one day i am not perfect but i do try and if hadnt been by that i stumbled upon their views i would not have considered a better edu.

  4. Lee Lee says:

    Yes, they are on a mission it seems. Especially here in Texas. I have been doing my own research on the charter issue and I have come to believe it goes deeper than profiting from government money. I firmly believe it’s about property. Think about it….many urban areas do not have many large plots of land big enough for new Walmart stores. New York City, for one. What property is the perfect size? School property. Texas governor, Rick Perry, is on a mission since the new legislature began. He has used the Austin school district as his model. The Austin school districts superintendent has allowed a charter to take over a public high school and a public elementary school. This month, that same superintendent was made head of the charter program in Texas. If this agenda were truly about children’s education, the charters would already have schools built. And in the past they did! Or at least they rented space somewhere. It’s not schools that are established that the Walton Foundation seems to be seeking now. They want to give grant money to those interested in “Launching” charter schools.

  5. Linda says:

    James – good for you! You did exactly what teachers hope will happen through education. Empowering young people in their desire for evermore opportunities to develop their minds. As students begin this process, they become intellectually curious and with that begin asking questions. They question the answers they are given, the information they are provided/fed. I hope you move in that direction too! I encourage you to explore the many layered and complicated aspects of a society truly ensuring that each of its children has access to the best schools, and that each of its schools as everything they need to succeed. One of the most complicated parts of this is whether the public should pay for educating children or whether private groups will do it. In a democracy, I would argue it is the public, the people, all the people and not just some with an agenda of their own. I wish you well in your studies – keep working hard, speaking your mind AND start asking those big questions.

  6. Susan says:

    Lee Lee, you are right. It’s also about property. In Los Angeles the school superindendent is trying to force Venice High School to give up half of its space to a charter school. They are just seizing public property and turning it over to the private sector. Our public schools don’t belong to Walmart or Eli Broad or Bloomberg or Silicon Valley. And the federal government has no right to impose Common Core, a data mining scheme for corporations who are now allowed to collect and sell student data. This is legal because Obama changed the privacy laws (FERPA).

  7. Thomas Dollick says:

    Sounds like one more attempt to destroy democracy and remove the publics voice from yet one more aspect of life that matters to everybody, not just the privileged few. We are supposed to live in a democratic society and yet our democratic voices are being systematically silenced by large corporations who more and more dictate our resources, education and knowledge. They even control the few democratic aspects of our society (being almost solely politics) we still have a choice in (in the same way you have a choice in a multiple choice question, except the only bubbles to fill in are A or B…… but hey, 2 choices are better than none I guess).

  8. Miron Boland says:

    Love the new “Real Walmart” campaign. Don’t bother going through the inconvenience of actually fixing what is glaringly wrong with the Wal-Mart business model. Just change your commercials to cast Wal-Mart in a positive light.

  9. Kris says:

    This also doesn’t get at the fact that the lack of Walmart renumeration both in pay and in benefits is a contributing factor to the achievement gaps in schools. As recent articles attest, when full time workers struggle to make $25,000 and Thanksgiving food collections are held for them, those families lack food and financial security, impacting the ability of children to concentrate and to cope. Meanwhile, competing corporations like Costco value their employees, sacrificing profit in the beliefs that a stable employee base is better business-sense in the long run. Multiple factors prevent me shopping at Walmart.

  10. Sharon Sanders says:

    Between the Waltons, Kochs, and Murdochs they’ve done enough damage to our country to end our democracy forever. You add their front groups, lobbyists, shoddy products, an end to excellent public schools, and a real news media, and what else is there.

  11. Jerry says:

    I am not a fan of the WalMart enterprise and I rarely shop there but I applaud the Waltons for investing in communities where educational opportunity is lacking. I had to chuckle at the following statement in the above article: “When a profoundly privileged family seeks to engage in philanthropy in historically marginalized communities that they are not part of, the lack of accountability is even more troubling.” Would the writer be happier if the Waltons invested their education reform dollars in white, upper class communities? I think the Walton’s are damned if they do and damned if they don’t because they are wealthy and politically conservative. Writers like the one above and like-minded commentators should try thinking outside the box. I know many lower middle class and impoverished parents that would jump at the chance to send their children to a private or charter school if given the chance. I say “Thank you” to the Waltons for supporting school choice in those communities.

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