NYT Examines Walton Foundation Backing for School Privatization

This weekend the New York Times published a long story about the Walton Family Foundation’s massive financial support for the charter school movement and for right-wing think tanks that back other efforts to privatize public education like private school vouchers.

The foundation, which is run by the family that founded Walmart, has given more than $1 billion to educational efforts since 2000, according to the Times’s Motoko Rich. The foundation has given grants to one out of every four charter start-ups in the country.

The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy as well as on which schools flourish and which are forced to fold. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing, and most divisive, trends in public education — including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.

“The influence of philanthropy in terms of the bang for the buck they get is just really kind of shocking,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

As the article notes, charter schools promoted by Walton and other big foundations have supporters and critics that cross typical ideological lines; the article cites the success of some Walton-supported charter schools in Washington, D.C., where the foundation has had a huge influence on education policy.

But there is plenty of controversy about the overall effect of charter school expansion. And Walton and its allies also support more radical education “reforms” like private school vouchers. Walton has given a voucher advocacy group, the Alliance for School Choice, $18.4 million. The article also mentions that Walton “hired an education program officer who had worked at the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative business-backed group.” ALEC’s support for private school vouchers is examined in PFAW’s report, ALEC: The Voice of Corporate Special Interests in State Legislatures.

In March, we wrote about the Network for Public Education’s inaugural national conference:

A primary focus of the conference was the heavily funded corporate “reform” movement that pushes for increased testing and expanded “school choice” via vouchers, charters, and virtual schools. That push comes in the context of massive cuts to public education, particularly in states where Tea Party Republicans took power in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And huge sums are being diverted to for-profit companies through tax credit schemes and lucrative contracts.  In Texas, for example, the state has a five-year, $500 million contract with testing giant Pearson, the world’s biggest for-profit education corporation.

Public education advocate Diane Ravitch is a vocal critic of efforts to privatize public education and is the author of several books on corporate education reform efforts, most recently Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. In a positive review of Reign of Error, Jonathan Kozol wrote, Those….who have grown increasingly alarmed at seeing public education bartered off piece by piece, and seeing schools and teachers thrown into a state of siege, will be grateful for this cri de coeur — a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Writes Kozol:

Again and again, she returns to this: “Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation,” which make for a “toxic mix.” Public schooling in itself, she emphasizes, is “in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it.”

Ravitch responded to the new New York Times article on her blog:

The Waltons do not like public education. They do not like unions. They like charters and vouchers. They spend $160 million every year to spread the gospel of privatization and to destroy the public schools that are the heart of most communities.

With their support, the US is recreating a dual school system: one that chooses its students and the other that accepts all….