The Walmarting of American Education

In January 2016, Walmart publicized a plan to close 269 of its retail stores. As Jeff Bryant reported for AlterNet, the announcement was significant news in small towns and suburban communities directly affected by the closures, but otherwise it did not garner prominent media attention. “Stories about local communities being devastated by business decisions made in distant headquarters have become a staple of this era,” he wrote. At the same time, Bryant reported, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) announced a five-year strategic plan to spend a billion dollars to support and expand charter schools in thirteen US cities and states. As Education Week reported, WFF was “doubling down on its investments in school choice.” (Notably this article disclosed that WFF “provides grant support for Education Week’s coverage of school choice and parent-empowerment issues.”)

Over the past twenty years, WFF has given more than $1.3 billion to K–12 education, according to its own calculations. The WFF boasts that one in four charter schools across the nation have received WFF startup funds. (For previous Censored coverage, see “Education ‘Reform’ a Trojan Horse for Privatization,” Censored story #13 in Censored 2013.)

In his AlterNet article, Bryant described how WFF’s commitment to charter schools is a product of the Walton family having been “fully inculcated” in the educational philosophy of libertarian economist Milton Friedman and by the “myth of school failure” spread by the Reagan administration.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan campaigned to abolish the Department of Education. One of the landmarks of his presidency was the 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” which warned against a “rising tide of mediocrity.” Though critics have since rebutted many of the report’s claims and questioned the validity of its statistical analysis, “A Nation at Risk” was and remains influential. Indeed, John Walton read the report the year it was published and shared it with family members, leading his father, Sam Walton, to announce, “I’d like to see an all-out revolution in education.”

In 1995, Friedman argued that “our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured,” and that only by “privatizing a major segment of it” could the restructuring succeed. As Bryant described, “Central to Friedman’s ideology was that schools should be thought of as businesses,” and their students understood as customers. Friedman’s philosophy meshed with the Walton’s business sensibilities, as did a shared animosity towards unions. In this view, businesses—and, by extension, schools—thrive by providing customers with what they want at lower prices than their competitors can offer; and employees—or teachers—remain loyal because of profit-sharing and other options that give them a stake in the business, rather than due to higher wages.

In a related report for Salon, excerpted from his book Schools on TrialNikhil Goyal documented how the New Markets Tax Credit Program, established in 2000 by the Clinton administration, encouraged private investors to “put money into community projects, like the development of new charter schools, in low-income communities.” Under the program, such ventures can earn investors a 39 percent federal tax break over seven years. Goyal quoted journalist Juan González, “The program . . . is so lucrative that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.”

Walmart founder Sam Walton established the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) in 1987 as a philanthropic endeavor. Walmart’s vast earnings generate the foundation’s money. The Walton family is among the world’s richest, with a combined net worth of approximately $150 billion in January 2016.

Although corporate news attended to WFF’s $1 billion commitment to charter schools, this coverage often favored charter school expansion, as in an April 2016 CNBC reportthat spotlighted how charter schools would decrease educational inequality. Salon and Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post each republished Bryant’s AlterNet piece in March 2016.

Jeff Bryant, “How the Cutthroat Walmart Business Model is Reshaping American Public Education,” AlterNet, March 13, 2016,