Perspectives

Why Are Walmart Billionaires Bankrolling Phony School ‘Reform’ In LA?

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For years, Los Angeles has been ground zero in an intense debate about how to improve our nation’s education system. What’s less known is who is shaping that debate. Many of the biggest contributors to the so-called “school choice” movement — code words for privatizing our public education system — are billionaires who don’t live in Southern California, but have gained significant influence in local school politics. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent contribution of $1 million to a political action committee created to influence next week’s LAUSD school board elections is only the most recent example of the billionaire blitzkrieg.

For more than a decade, however, one of the biggest of the billionaire interlopers has been the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, who have poured millions into a privatization-oriented, ideological campaign to make LA a laboratory for their ideas about treating schools like for-profit businesses, and treating parents, students and teachers like cogs in what they must think are education big-box retail stores.

As a business chain, Walmart has spent a fortune — in philanthropy and campaign contributions — trying to break into the Los Angeles retail market with its low-wage retail stores.

Now the Walton family — which derives its fortune from the Arkansas-based Walmart — is trying to use that fortune to bring Walmart-style education to Los Angeles.

The Waltons have long supported efforts to privatize education through the Walton Family Foundation as well as individual political donations to local candidates. Since 2005, the Waltons have given more than $1 billion to organizations and candidates who support privatization. They’ve channeled the funds to the pro-charter and pro-voucher Milton Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, Michelle Rhee’s pro-privatization and high-stakes testing organization Students First, and the pro-voucher Alliance for School Choice, where Walton family member Carrie Walton Penner sits on the board. In addition to funding these corporate-style education reform organizations, since 2000 the Waltons have also spent more than $24 million bankrolling politicians, political action committees, and ballot issues in California and elsewhere at the state and local level which undermine public education and literally shortchange students.

In 2006, Greg Penner, who married Carrie Walton Penner (daughter of Walmart chairman Rob Walton and granddaughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton) and serves on Walmart’s board, spent $250,000 to oppose a statewide ballot initiative that would have created a universal preschool system to give California’s children a much-needed leg up in early education. It also would have created thousands of good jobs for preschool teachers.

In Los Angeles alone, the Walton Family Foundation has donated over $84.3 million to charter schools and organizations that support them, such as Green Dot Schools, ICEF schools, and the Los Angeles Parent Union, as well as $1 million to candidates or political action committees which support diverting tax dollars away from public schools. They believe in high-stakes testing, hate teachers unions, want to measure student and teacher success primarily by relying on one-size-fits-all standardized tests, but have an entirely different set of standards when it comes to judging charter schools.

You’d think that the Waltons would invest in ideas that would improve education. But there’s little evidence that private charter schools and vouchers — the Waltons’ two big obsessions — are effective at boosting students’ learning outcomes. A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University discovered that only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional public schools. Thirty-seven percent actually offered children a worse education. In other words, on balance, charters make things worse, even though many of those schools “cream” the best students from regular public schools. Just this month, the same Stanford center released a study that called for stronger monitoring and review processes for charter schools.

Other research confirms that charters rarely deliver on the promises their backers make. In October 2012, the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Education released an audit finding that the California Department of Education lacks the necessary oversight capabilities to monitor charter schools’ compliance with federal law. With about 100,000 children in charters — the highest number of charter students in the country, representing more than 15 percent of the children in the district — Los Angeles bears the brunt of this regulatory failure.

The Walton family became America’s richest family by creating a retail model built on ruthless cost-cutting, low wages and few benefits. So, it isn’t surprising that some studies show that charter school teachers are paid less than teachers at traditional public schools and have few years of education on average. Is this the right model for our schools?

Many studies show that parents’ incomes are the best predictor of students’ academic performance, which results in a wide “achievement gap” between affluent and low-income students. Walmart contributes to this gap. It is not only the nation’s largest private employer, with well over one million employees, but it also has the largest number of poverty-level jobs in the country. If the Waltons, who still own half of Walmart, really wanted to do something to help improve schools, they could start by paying their employees a living wage.

If we are serious about the future of our children, we must ask: why are the Waltons, a largely out-of-state family with no ties to Los Angeles’ children and little background in education, intent on turning our communities’ educational choices into a junior version of the cut-throat, profiteering corporate world? It’s time for us to take a hard look at ideological billionaires who are throwing their wealth into undermining our schools — before our children pay the real price.


Peter Dreier

Photo by Dale Robbins

Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).
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  • Momzer

    Here is Los Angeles school board member Zimmer responding to Bloomberg’s attack: http://youtu.be/De3Kvgf0s_Q

  • Anonymous

    Just look at how this incredibly wealthy family treats it’s own employees. They are the the largest group of working people on food stamps and lacking medical insurance. Bringing anything Walmart to anywhere is a major mistake.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.demerath Bill Demerath-Shanti

    While I agree with most of what you are saying, I believe charter schools can help improve education, but we need to look at how. If 17 percent of charters are improving education, how are they doing it? Saying it has to be all or nothing is too restrictive. We should look at what works and what does not. Until I saw your show on creationism in schools with the 19 year old, I thought vouchers and charters made much sense. I hope we can find a way to work out the kinks rather than throwing out the good with the bad. One obvious solution is to make children (and people in general) a priority above profits and war.

  • Owen Johnson

    Bill brings up a good point: If the Waltons really cared about children (or anyone but themselves, really) they could put the same amount of money into paying their employees a living wage and it would do more good. As Rep Keith Ellison said, “it seems there are a lot of people in this country who think the poor have too much money.” And I think the Waltons are the board of directors of that club.

  • Anonymous

    After 15 years in corporate and finance, why do I become more and more convinced that our most successful “business leaders” are so successful because they’re sociopaths?

  • Lopez

    Right from the cited Stanford study. Maybe the findings were a little more complex than the author of this article seemed to indicate:

    “It is important to note that the news for charter schools has some encouraging facets. In our nationally pooled sample, two subgroups fare better in charters than in the traditional system: students in poverty and ELL students. This is no small feat. In these cases, our numbers indicate that charter students who fall into these categories are outperforming their TPS counterparts in both reading and math. These populations, then, have clearly been well served by the introduction of charters into the education landscape. These findings are particularly heartening for the charter advocates who target the most challenging educational populations or strive to improve education options in the most difficult communities. Charter schools that are organized around a mission to teach the most economically disadvantaged students in particular seem to have developed expertise in serving these communities. We applaud their efforts, and recommend that schools or school models demonstrating success be further studied with an eye toward the notoriously difficult process of replication. Further, even for student subgroups in charters that had aggregate learning gains lagging behind their TPS peers, the analysis revealed charter schools in at least one state that demonstrated positive academic growth relative to TPS peers. These higher performers also have lessons to share that could improve the performance of the larger community of charters schools.

    The flip‐side of this insight should not be ignored either. Students not in poverty and students who are not English language learners on average do notably worse than the same students who remain in the traditional public school system. Additional work is needed to determine the reasons underlying this phenomenon. Perhaps these students are “off‐mission” in the schools they attend. Perhaps they are left behind in otherwise high‐performing charter schools, or perhaps these findings are a reflection of a large pool of generally under performing schools. Whatever the reason, the policy community needs to be aware of this dichotomy, and greater attention should be paid to the large number of students not being well served in charter schools.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.elgee.5 Pat Elgee

    All their cheap China imports have put a lot of American businesses out of business.
    This whole family is anti-American and solely out for personal profit, without any concern for the damage done to the American economy.

  • http://twitter.com/perlindqvist Per Lindqvist

    The Walton’s just want more tax dollar in corporate welfare.
    That’s the only way to “improve” from paying $0 in tax.

  • West LA Advocate

    Check your Facts:
    1. The Waltons have not put any money into this School Board Race.
    2. Are you against foundation or corporate money working for social good like helping public schools or public broadcasting ? if so check the bottom of this site: Funding for Moyers & Company is provided by Carnegie Corporation of New York; The Kohlberg Foundation; Independent Production Fund, with support from the Partridge Foundation, a John and Polly Guth Charitable Fund; The Clements Foundation; Park Foundation; The Herb Alpert Foundation; The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation; The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Anne Gumowitz; The Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation; HKH Foundation; Barbara G. Fleischman; and by our sole corporate sponsor, Mutual of America.

  • http://twitter.com/scott4567 scott glennon

    It is widely known that Walmart is anti-union. Destroying or attempting to destroy teacher’s unions would be consistent with that position. My opinion is they do not care about anyone’s freedom or liberty but their own.

  • http://www.facebook.com/luis.g.aguilera Luis Gabriel Aguilera

    It’s all about, guess what, money…Here’s a comprehensive essay that tells a big story for a rainy night…http://www.scribd.com/doc/106337306/THE-CHICAGO-PUBLIC-SCHOOLS-ALLERGIC-TO-ACTIVISM

  • Grandma

    Shopping at Walmart means you are furthering that family’s fortunes while their employees supplement their non-living wages with public assistance for housing, food stamps, medicaid, etc. Their whole business model runs on my/our taxes. This family is spending money to ensure the continuation of a poorly educated workforce to staff their lowest common denominator stores. Would love to ask them, “So you’ve got more money than you can spend in a lifetime. But you are trying to ruin the best thing about America – our public schools. Why?” Charter schools seem to work because they cherry-pick the best students from public schools. This creates a problem in that the students that are left in public schools are high-needs, poor, etc. If you believe every child in this country deserves a great education, you need to support strong public schools.

  • http://rdsathene.blogspot.com/ rdsathene

    Shilling for power and privilege West LA Advocate?

  • rain,adustbowlstory

    Thanks for this. Every single story about Michelle Rhee and all the other anti-union “education” groups should have to include where their funding comes from.

    In this country, the elephant in the room is always corporate power.

    Thanks, Mr. Moyers.

  • Dora

    I have wondered why the Walton’s are so obsessed with charter schools and two things come to mind for me. First, they are so anti-union that this belief spills over into other areas whether it affects them or not. Most charter schools are non-union and that fits within their belief system. Also, many charter schools are religious schools, which is supposed to be against the law because charter schools are supposed to be public schools, and 300 of those religious charter schools receive vouchers AND teach creationism, per a recent Bill Moyers’ broadcast.

    From what I have gathered the Walton’s are an ultra conservative clan that would support ideas of creationism and anything else that takes back of few centuries or so.

    To add to the commentary above, the Walton’s also supported a charter school initiative with $1M+ in our last election that pushed voters into a1% margin to vote for charter schools after a very heavy pro-charter TV campaign financed by Gates and the Walton’s. Charter school had been voted down three times before that in Washington state.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marshall.bennett.393 Marshall Bennett

    Thank you so much Bill Moyers!!!!

  • Anonymous

    Those who want to “Save Public Schools” want to defend a myth. Capitalist schools have never been public but always segregated by class and race, now as much as ever. They teach lies to children, depending on their parental income. Those who want to save this myth want to empower a very real corporate state. Opportunism drives much of this drivel. From teachers, it means “save my job.” Well, ok. But if all you are doing is dancing on a regimented curricula, supervising racist high stakes exams, and promoting witless nationalism, then No, we won’t help you. The education agenda is a war agenda: class war and empires’ wars .Those who deny that merely dabble with insignificant details, building reaction.

  • Anonymous

    Sam Walton’s father worked for a group of Chicago banks in the 20′s and 30′s. His job was to foreclose on farmers in the Midwest.

    When Sam Walton was a young man he would often accompany his father during the depression as he evicted people from their farms. This is the true Walmart foundation.

    Profiting from other people’s misery and misfortune is a time honored tradition in the Walton Family.

  • Thomas

    The one important fact that seems to be neglected when talking about privatization of schools – or prisons, or federal postal services, or retirement accounts, etc. – is that these efforts are not really private businesses. These schemes all basically put a private business-person in between the tax payer and a public program to which their tax dollars were being allocated. In other words, privatized public institutions still run on our tax dollars – but with an added profit margin and middle-man incentives tacked onto the price tag. The reason Walmart wants to get into education has more to do with tax-funded corporate welfare, than educating our kids. And worse yet, just imagine Walmart-approved teaching curriculum and educators explaining to kids how paying bottom dollar and no benefits to employees is supposed to be a good thing, and something they just must accept to be good little future Walmart workers?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Russ-Klettke/1485497701 Russ Klettke

    I’m pretty sure the research shows that 17 percent perform above the averages, but as Moyers suggests that could well have to do with them drawing the better students away from public non-charter schools.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rjgreene Richard J. Greene

    how much more evidence is needed before the sheeple realize our nation is for sale to the highest bidders.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rjgreene Richard J. Greene

    I’m no advocate of socialism but if this trend continues the gap between the haves and have not is going to broaden until we are at the threshold of revolution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andy-Kinnard/100000044001976 Andy Kinnard

    Yes, Joshua, public schools may never have performed to potential (or plan), but they are a system far superior at common, public education than for-profit entities that make money from taxpayer dollars while not teaching every child…just the ones they want. What system would you propose to substitute in place of our current public education system?

  • http://www.facebook.com/brad.whitaker.142 Brad Whitaker

    The California Charter School Association gave $300,000 at the last minute to the coalition of “reform” candidates. Carrie Walton Penner is the vice-chair of the board and the Walton Family Foundation has given big to the CCSA. Facts checked.

  • NotARedneck

    And big time tax evaders.

  • Anonymous

    So what your saying is your pissed because they don’t donate to YOUR particular brand of education…yeah, your the model that’s been working so well for decades now…

  • http://www.facebook.com/pam.findley.9 Pam Findley

    Obviously, your education, from wherever it came, was insufficient, since you don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re.”

  • AETSON1@HOTMAIL.COM

    I WORK AT WALMART FOR 5YRS, I KNOW HOW THEY TREAT EMPLOYEES.

    WALMART DOESNT WANT INTELLEGENCE WORKING FOR THEM,ONLY THE ILLITERATES WORKING FOR THEM.

  • AETSON1@HOTMAIL.COM

    SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO LONGGGGGGGGGGGGG WALLY WORLD.

  • Katherine Kampf

    Thank you for your essay. I am a Chicago Public School teacher watching the privatization process with horror. Broad Academy is teaching administrators how to raise standards, declare schools failing and underutilized, close them for the “good” of the children, and then turn them over to corporate interests to collect public education dollars. Our superintendent works for Broad as well as CPS. Chicago is closing over 50 schools in impoverished communities. It is suggested that the students will go to better-equipped schools, but that is because CPS has been underfunding those slated for closure for years!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=647594267 Tina Fine

    Thank you for this article…I was a high school teacher for seven years and knew all about the Walton group and their “work.” The most frustrating part of it all is that they run campaigns supposedly to reward teachers. One of the teachers at my from school even won an award from them. They are undermining the teaching profession under the radar; I wish more people were aware of their agenda.

  • Greg Eversman

    I personally believe that a students success or failure has a lot to do with the overall income levels of the parents in that district.Rote learning has become more important to schools than critical thinking.Unfortunately being a good “test taker”doesn’t necessarily translate into success as an adult.Taxpayer dollars are used to fund these charter schools.Just another way for Walmart to use taxpayer dollars to promote their agendas.

  • Elijah

    You think like an illiterate, write like an illiterate.

  • Elijah

    This really explains it. You hit the nail on the head, Thomas. Now I understand …

  • Huntsvillecoalition 4Democracy

    Most of those foundations support public schools.

  • Frank Donahue

    That would be “you’re” the model.