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Walmart, the Walton Foundation, and New York City Schools

The conservative Walton Foundation’s education spending has been in the news quite a bit this summer — including recent announcements of a $49.5 million dollar contribution to the expansion of Teach for America and the release of a list of how the Foundation distributed over $157 million in grants to education groups in 2010.

Overall, the Foundation’s largest grants last year went almost exclusively to organizations which support vouchers and charter schools, including over $2 million dollars to two New York state organizations with the most explicit commitments to supporting for-profit corporate charter schools and weakening teachers unions — the New York Charter Schools Association and the Brighter Choice Foundation. And interestingly enough, the $1.3 million that Eva Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network received from Walton almost exactly matches the amount the Network spent on advertising her schools last year — an average of $1,300 per new student:

Walton Foundation 2010 Grant Totals (for Selected Groups):

  • Teach for America (National) — $16,652,436
  • KIPP Foundation — $8,650,000
  • New Teacher Project — $2,250,000
  • Education Reform Now, Inc. — $1,325,000
  • Success Charter Network — $1,310,000
  • New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) — $1,045,459
  • Brighter Choice Foundation — $995,332

Given the troubling history of Walmart’s anti-union activities as an employer and their current efforts to expand into New York and other cities with long histories of defending workers’ right to collective bargaining, some scholars are wondering whether the Foundation’s large donations to TFA and other education organizations are a way of getting double value for their money. With these grants, are they both buying goodwill by spending money on schools in cities hit hard by the current economic crisis (which is where they’d like to expand), and continuing to focus their giving primarily on organizations which support their own corporate and non-union model of school reform?

Dorian Warren, a professor of political science at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and author of a forthcoming book about Walmart, believes the seven communities the Walton Family Foundation is targeting with Teach for America are relevant for another reason: they are all potentially overlap with Walmart’s expansion plans.

“Besides six of the seven communities being comprised primarily of people of color, I wouldn’t be surprised if these also happen to be their store expansion targets,” Warren told The Huffington Post. “A lot of their giving is related to their expansion efforts, but I don’t know for certain whether this is one of those instances.”

Philip Serghini, director of community affairs for Walmart, was more direct in response to another reporter’s question about the company’s recent donation to a charter school in Harlem:

“We’ve made no secret that we want to be part of New York City and we want to be part of the community. One way to do that for any corporation is to meet with, get to know and ultimately make donations to charities that are important locally.”

As other scholars point out in response to the TFA donation, however, the Walton Foundation’s efforts to expand the scope of its giving beyond the most explicit supporters of school privatization have the potential to complicate the ability of their grant recipients to distance themselves from Walton’s more conservative agenda:

Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, sees a pattern of giving by the Walton Family Foundation. Its philanthropy, he says, while initially focused on hard-core conservative issues like vouchers and privatization has since expanded to include initiatives like charter schools.

“While groups like Teach for America have done a good job of blurring partisan boundaries, I can’t help but think of this alliance as a pairing of strange bedfellows,” said Henig. “I keep waiting for what I expect are some serious disagreements on core principles to flare up and bring the implicit tension finally out into the open. But so far, it really hasn’t happened yet.”

For Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, the pairing raises more than a few alarm bells.

“The Walton Family Foundation is the most conservative-leaning in the education philanthropy business,” she said. “Their giving is almost entirely to charters and vouchers. So now you have charters and vouchers and Teach for America — or the mainstreaming of their right-wing agenda.”

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