On the Wal-Mart Money Trail | The Nation


On the Wal-Mart Money Trail

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The WFF has become the single largest source of funding for the voucher and charter school movement. Walton funding allows some charter schools to spend more per pupil than "competing" public schools. The ironic result is that while these projects are supposed to demonstrate to the public the wonders of a marketized approach to education, the WFF's money gives its grantees an advantage over other schools, allowing them to perform better than they would otherwise. "[The Waltons] claim to support competition and the free market," says Paul Dunphy, a policy analyst for Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston-based coalition, "but actually they are manipulating the market, conferring advantage on their pet projects."

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Liza Featherstone
Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been...

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It's a fitting paradox, since the Wal-Mart economic model, like almost anything held up as an example of the beauty of the free market, contains so many contradictions (yes, it's extremely profitable, but look at all those tax subsidies). Because so much Walton and Wal-Mart philanthropy is crudely self-interested, it's tempting to find an equally crude motive for the Walton family's interest in education; many Wal-Mart critics have assumed that the Waltons must be planning to reap several more fortunes through for-profit education companies. That's not completely baseless: John Walton was briefly involved in such a venture. However, he backed out, realizing such profiteering was hurting the credibility of his education reform efforts. And so far, for-profit education is still not a very profitable industry--especially when compared with retail.

The Waltons' motives for supporting the privatization of education seem--at this writing, anyway--to be ideological, even idealistic, rather than an elaborate backdrop to a new money-making scheme. Like many rich Americans who have helped to finance the far right's rise to power, they have embraced a worldview in which what's good for the wealthy is good for everyone else. And greater cultural acceptance of the unfettered market--through an increasing tolerance for privatization of all kinds--will certainly make the world safer for a family business that thrives on weak government and lack of regulation. But it's also likely that the Waltons, like most right-wingers, sincerely believe that their ideas have the potential to improve people's lives. Why wouldn't the Waltons genuinely believe in the free market? Look how well it has served them.

Helen Walton, now 85 and in poor health, is expected to donate almost all of her personal fortune--worth $18 billion--to the WFF upon her death, which, as the NCRP points out, will make that entity the richest foundation in the world. This should disturb progressives, since so much Walton money goes to support conservative causes. Yet although the current direction and political leanings of Walton "philanthropy" are clear, the future is a mystery. As Krehely observes, nothing is known about the politics or interests of Sam Walton's grandchildren. This matters in a family foundation; this fall the Olin Foundation closed its doors, having spent down its endowment because the older generation did not trust the younger Olins to carry on the family's right-wing traditions. Since the Waltons don't say much about their future plans, or about their internal family politics, it's unclear what lies in store for this--currently--right-wing fortune.

"The Waltons could be an enormous force for good," says Responsible Wealth's Chuck Collins. "As the company's biggest shareholders, they could decide that Wal-Mart could pay a living wage. They could use their charitable dollars not to undermine public education but to boost educational opportunity. They could become major contributors to social good. But they're not."

One item in the Walton Family Foundation's most recent IRS filing shows how uninterested this family is in true social responsibility: a measly $6,000 to something called the Wal-Mart Associates in Need Fund. Contrast that with the millions the family spends promoting right-wing causes, and it becomes painfully clear that the Waltons value conservative ideology far more than they value the human beings who have made them the richest family on earth. Told about these figures, Kathleen MacDonald, a Wal-Mart candy department clerk in Aiken, South Carolina, responded bluntly, "All I have to say about that is, it doesn't surprise me. Like Bush, they don't have a clue what working families go through." MacDonald would like to see The Simple Life do a show about working at Wal-Mart. "I could see Paris Hilton on a register at Christmastime, or stocking shelves," she says. Or perhaps Alice Walton as a greeter, on her feet all day, thanking us for shopping at Wal-Mart.

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