Advocates of education privatization—whether through voucher programs that send tax dollars to private schools or through charter schools—like to market their ideas as "choice" or even as a civil rights struggle. But as soon as you start to follow the money, you see the reality. When you have a new system of education that's being funded by billionaires at the expense of a truly public education system that serves all kids, it's not about choice or civil rights. And when the Walton family, the Walmart heirs who make up four of the 10 richest Americans, is one of the biggest voucher and charter funders out there, it tells you a lot.
The Waltons have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into remaking American education for decades now, and a new report from In the Public Interest and the American Federation of Teachers connects the dots. On more than one occasion, the staff of Walton-funded advocacy organizations have made the agenda clear: weakening public schools to the point of collapse. That's the project the Walton Family Foundation is pushing with hundreds of millions of dollars, putting its stamp on charter schools and corporate education reform as much as Walmart has put its stamp on big box retail:
The foundation is the largest private funder of charter school start-ups, having spent more than $355 million since 1997 on charter launches. In a news release dated Feb. 5, 2014, Mark Sternberg, the foundation’s director of Systemic K-12 Education Reform reported that the foundation has kick-started more than 1,500 schools, approximately one out of four charters in the country. Over the last five years, the foundation has spent between $63 million and $73 million annually to fuel new charter openings.
Over the last six years, the Walton Family Foundation has also put $280 million into advocacy groups to lobby against oversight and regulation of charter schools and to promote unlimited charter growth. For instance:
New York State taxpayers have been witness to a seven-year tug of war over whether charter schools, like traditional public schools, are subject to audits by the state comptroller. In 2005, the State Assembly passed the School District Accountability Act, extending the power of the comptroller to audit all public schools, both traditional and charter. The New York Charter School Association, which has received $3.6 million from the Walton Family Foundation, took to the courts, arguing that the state did not have the authority to audit the schools because they were run by independent—not public—boards. In 2009, the Court of Appeals agreed with the charter lobby. Two years later, the Legislature tried again. In exchange for more than doubling the number of charter schools permitted to operate in New York, the Legislature again conferred on the state comptroller the authority to audit charters. In July 2013, after only two charter school audits had been released by the comptroller (both finding material concerns), Eva Moskowitz, the director of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, which has received $4 million from the Walton Family Foundation, filed suit again in the state Supreme Court. In March 2014, a Manhattan Supreme Court justice ruled in her favor, but the following month, the General Assembly—in exchange for allowing New York City charter schools increased access to public school buildings—gave both the state comptroller and the city comptroller the authority to audit charters. The debate continues.
It's a heavily funded campaign of constant growth at the expense of existing institutions and against regulation and oversight. It is literally the Walmartization of American education.