From the Walmart 1%
“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.”
- 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, 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. 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, and he assisted in the creation of the right-wing advocacy group Alliance for School Choice. He was also a shareholder in a for-profit school development company  that went bankrupt in 2006.
- Carrie Walton Penner: Penner, who graduated from a private boarding school and attended two elite universities, sits on the boards of the KIPP Foundation (to which the Walton Family Foundation recently gave $25 million) and the California Charter Schools Association. She is also on the boards of the Alliance for School Choice—a voucher advocacy group—and its lobbying and political affiliate. 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.
- 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, a “non-profit venture capital fund” investing charter in schools.
- Christy Walton: Christy Walton is now the co-chair of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which her late husband co-founded.
- Annie Proietti: Jim Walton’s daughter, Annie Walton Proietti, works for a KIPP school in Denver.
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.” Between 2005 and 2010, the Walton Family Foundation gave nearly $700 million to education reform organizations. 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 on a new study done by Illinois-based IFF, a “regional nonprofit community development financial institution” that identifies itself as a “stakeholder” in the charter school movement, and funded with a $100,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation. 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.
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 byBusiness 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.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.
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.
- 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). 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”—reform efforts that have been focused on charter schools and school privatization. Greg Penner is on the board of Teach for America.
- California: In 2006, Greg Penner contributed $250,000 to a campaign against proposed Proposition 82. 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.
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, 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.
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.