The Walton Family and Corporate-Style Education Reform

The Walton family, the richest family in America, is the largest user of a type of trust designed to avoid estate taxes. These trusts contain billions and have helped the Waltons avoid an estimated $3 billion in taxes. The Walton family then uses these trusts to fund the Walton Family Foundation, which is one of the country’s biggest funders of school privatization efforts. They’ve helped fund a quarter of the country’s charter schools.

  • The Waltons have spent over $1 billion, and pledged to spend $1 billion more in the next five years, on charter schools and voucher programs.
  • The family has also contributed millions to pro-charter school political candidates and groups in order to advance their desired education agenda.
  • Walton family members are also active in organizations that support a market-driven approach to education, such as the Charter School Growth Fund, the KIPP Foundation and EdVoice.

Walton Family Foundation spending on education reform

From 2010 to 2015, the Walton Family Foundation spent more than $1 billion to “infuse competitive pressure into America’s K-12 education system.” If the Waltons have walked back this sentiment recently, it’s only because generating “competition” didn’t actually improve the system; now the Waltons’ plan is to use their wealth to “create environments that support choice,” so that charters and voucher programs can flourish, syphoning taxpayer funding from traditional public schools.

And they’ve pledged to pick up the pace by spending another $1 billion in the next five years. Never mind that this money is mostly in states where no Walton family members live or have children in school, or that there’s an obvious argument to make that competitive market principles don’t apply to education, or that allowing a select few billionaires to dictate public policy matters like education by throwing around their wealth is profoundly anti-democratic.

Unfortunately, the Waltons’ chosen approach isn’t even particularly effective: While some charter schools may be very good, most perform the same as or worse than nearby traditional public schools.

The Walton Family Foundation has identified certain cities where it believes it can “have the greatest impact.” They are: Atlanta; Boston; Camden; Denver; Houston; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Memphis; New Orleans; New York; Oakland; San Antonio; and Washington, DC. The foundation is also focused on state-level policy in the following states: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Notably, the foundation has withdrawn from Chicago and Newark.

Political contributions to pro-charter candidates and groups

The Waltons have spent millions to undermine public education at the ballot box, as well. They’ve contributed to ballot initiatives, state-wide races and even local school board elections to advance their agenda across the country.

On three occasions—in 1996, 2000 and 2004—Washington state voters chose not to welcome charter schools to their state. In 2004, John Walton, the late son of Sam Walton, contributed over $1 million to the effort, making him its largest donor, despite not even residing in the state. The measure eventually passed in 2012, and Alice Walton was the campaign’s second largest contributor, giving $1.7 million. The state Supreme Court ruled the referendum unconstitutional a few years later, although the state legislature passed a bill to fund charter schools in a different way earlier this year.

The year 2012 was a big one for Alice Walton and education. That year she also gave $200,000 to the re-election bid of Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett (who ended up losing and was later found to have inappropriately changed the grade given to a charter school) and $600,000 to a successful ballot initiative to permit charter schools in Georgia.

Alice Walton, Texas’s wealthiest resident, has spent more than $700,000 in state-wide races so far in 2016. Much of that money has gone to advance the Waltons’ vision of school reform, including $180,000 to Jeff Judson, a Tea Party candidate for the state house who lost in the primary; $115,000 to Leadership for Educational Equity – Texas; and $75,000 to Charter Schools Now PAC.

Carrie Walton Penner has contributed extensively to California Charter Schools Association Advocates (the lobbying arm of the California Charter Schools Association). She gave $370,000 to the group when it was engaged in a campaign against a proposed school construction bond in West Contra Costa Unified School District in 2014. In 2015, Penner gave the group $150,000, and her uncle, Jim Walton, contributed another $225,000 as the organization backed pro-charter candidates in the nation’s most expensive school board elections in Los Angeles. Carrie Penner, Jim Walton and Alice Walton have given the group more than $2.2 million since the start of 2014.

In 2014, Carrie Penner and Alice Walton gave nearly $1 million combined to an outside spending group supporting a pro-charter candidate in the race for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Their preferred candidate lost, despite having the support of a number of billionaires.

In 2006, Greg Penner contributed $250,000 to a campaign against proposed Proposition 82 in California. The proposition sought to establish a universal preschool system in California for 4 year-olds. Perhaps Penner objected to the funding mechanism; it would have placed an additional income tax on individuals making more than $400,000 a year, and couples making in excess of $800,000.

The Waltons have given to numerous other campaigns:

The Waltons are able to wield their vast fortune to disproportionately shape an education system meant to serve all families—and now they’ve added an unaccountable dark money organization to their arsenal:

The Waltons’ extreme wealth and focus on market-based incentives for social change have made them a frequent target of critics who say the approach, dubbed “philanthrocapitalism,” is anti-democratic. The family won’t say how much it is spending on its recently created 501(c) 4 advocacy group, the Walton Education Coalition, and has stayed mum on what it plans to do with the majority of its fortune.

Involvement in other education reform organizations

Beyond their foundation, the Waltons are also active in organizations that support their market-driven approach to education. Carrie Walton Penner, the granddaughter of Sam Walton, is on the boards of the Charter School Growth Fund, KIPP Foundation, and EdVoice. Her husband, Walmart board chair Greg Penner, was formerly co-chair of the Charter School Growth Fund and on the board of Teach for America.

Ultimately, the Waltons are just pushing the Walmart model in a different sector:

[Education historian Diane Ravitch] likens the competition that charters pose to public schools to the competition that Walmart stores present to locally owned stores, and suggests parallel consequences: just as Walmart forces stores that can’t match their prices to shut their doors, so charters — which bleed students, and their funding, from traditional schools — cause local schools to close down.