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

How the Walton family is trying to use its fortune to bring Walmart-style education to Los Angeles.
 
 
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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.

 
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