The Waltons' War On Public Education: Heirs Of Wal-Mart Founder Spend Millions Supporting School Vouchers

The real cash cow in the voucher scheme business is the Walton Family Foundation, which has been subsidizing voucher proponents for years.

A lot of people don’t like Wal-Mart, and with good reason. The big-box retailer has been accused of paying unreasonably low wages, intimidating employees who complain about poor working conditions and even bribing foreign officials. Now, Wal-Mart has given us yet another reason to shop elsewhere: a foundation run by the heirs of Wal-Mart’s founder is pumping millions into supporting school vouchers.

The Walton Family Foundation, which was established by the family of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, said it plans to hand over $6 million to the Alliance for School Choice (ASC). This gift will basically double the ASC budget, The Washington Post reported.

In a press release, Marc Sternberg, who directs the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education policy efforts, said: “The work of ASC is vital to improving K-12 public education, especially for low-income communities.”

That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to see improved education in this country, especially for children who need the most assistance? But when the Alliance for School Choice is involved nothing is ever quite what it seems.

The Washington, D.C.-based ASC is one of the most powerful voucher lobbyists in the United States. The organization has spent much of its efforts supporting the creation or expansion of voucher programs in D.C., Ohio, Indiana, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, as well as other states.

The ASC has been so effective in part because it is backed by Michigan multi-millionaire Betsy DeVos (her husband, Dick, is best known as the former president of Amway). DeVos is a fundamentalist Christian and right-wing political activist who has made it her mission to destroy public education as we know it and replace it with a system built around taxpayer-funded religious and other private schools.

The ASC (and the DeVoses) have been particularly active in Wisconsin, where they’ve handed over a lot of cash to pro-voucher lawmakers over the years. Dick and Betsy DeVos contributed $337,330 to get “school choice” candidates elected in Wisconsin between 2003 and mid-2012, which was likely a factor in the state’s decision this year to expand its existing voucher scheme.   

But as powerful as Betsy DeVos is in her own right, the real cash cow in the voucher scheme business is the Walton Family Foundation, which has been subsidizing voucher proponents for years. In 2007-08 alone, the foundation poured $232 million into efforts to promote school choice in the states, including vouchers, The Chronicle of Philanthropy said.

And what has all that spending gotten American children? Certainly not a better education.

Things haven’t worked out real well in Wisconsin, where studies showed students in Milwaukee and Racine (the only districts currently eligible for vouchers) scored lower than their public school peers in both reading and math in 2012.

Louisiana’s voucher program is a mess too. Some schools there aren’t properly tracking the state funds they receive, including a Christian school that used voucher money to pay its sponsoring church for bus and facilities use.

And in Washington, D.C., federal tax dollars are being used to support a school that uses the “Suggestopedia” method of teaching (the underlying theory is that students can learn by tapping into the power of suggestion).

No matter how much money the Waltons, the DeVoses or anyone else spends in support of vouchers, the educational outcomes from those programs aren’t going to change. Vouchers just don’t work.

Of course many who advocate for so-called “school choice” don’t actually care about kids. Betsy DeVos, for one, is far more interested in supporting ultra-fundamentalist Christianity and her idea of what the “free market” should be.

That’s why it’s critical to remind people of all the problems associated with vouchers and what kind of people support these programs. Americans want a strong, adequately funded public school system, not privatization. These voucher lobbyists are bad for everyone, and lawmakers should refuse their money and ignore their ideas.