Motoko Rich’s recent blockbuster article in the NY Times explores the vast reach of the Walton Foundation to promote and support the privatization of public education. What has happened in Washington, D.C., writes Rich, is a microcosm of Walton’s investments in the promotion of an education revolution across the country: “In effect, Walton has subsidized an entire charter school system in the nation’s capital, helping to fuel enrollment growth so that close to half of all public school students in the city now attend charters, which receive taxpayer dollars but are privately operated… The foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants nationally to educational efforts since 2000, making it one of the largest private contributors to education in the country.”
Rich describes grants of over $1.2 million from the Walton Foundation to DC Prep, a Washington, D.C. network of four charter schools. Walton also supports Teach for America, the alternative, five-week, Peace Corps-like certification program that has become a primary supplier of teachers for charter schools not only in the nation’s capital but across the country. Not only does the Walton Foundation support particular privatized charter networks and programs to certify teachers outside the colleges of education, but it also funds the think tanks that have created and promoted the theoretical basis for today’s wave of school privatization including the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. It even “bankrolls an academic department at the University of Arkansas in which faculty, several of whom were recruited from conservative think tanks, conduct research on charter schools, voucher programs and other policies the foundation supports.”
Recently, according to Rich, Walton hired a staff person from the American Legislative Exchange Council as an education program officer. Rich lists Walton’s largest education grant recipients: the Charter School Growth Fund, Teach for America, KIPP charter schools, the Alliance for School Choice, GreatSchools Inc., StudentsFirst—Michelle Rhee’s advocacy group, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy…. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing and most divisive, trends in public education—including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.
While Rich acknowledges serious criticism of the Walton Foundation by supporters of public education including Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roeckel, president of the National Education Association, the stories she tells of high test scores at DC Prep and a father whose son attends Washington, D.C.’s Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and the Arts are from the point of view of particular families and parents who seek school choice for the purpose of meeting their own children’s needs. The father admits, “Charter schools are a bit of a disservice to the public schools…. But in the meantime, between everyone fighting about it, I did not want my kids to be caught in the limbo.”
One can surely understand the lure of school choice from the viewpoint of individual parents who want to do right by their children, but one wishes Rich had done more to remind us what kind of disservice to public education the D.C. charter school father may have been thinking about. She quotes Marc Sternberg, who recently left Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education department in New York City to become director of K-12 education reform at the Walton Foundation: “The Walton Family Foundation has been deeply committed to a theory of change, which is that we have a moral obligation to provide families with high quality choices,” but Rich does not consider whether it is in fact possible to provide good choices for every child and family. Rich comments, “While charter schools and vouchers may benefit those families that attend these schools, there may be unintended effects on the broader public school system,” but she does not explore closely what those effects may be. She extolls the high test scores of DC Prep, but she does not examine, for example, its attrition rate (an indicator in many places that charters have been known to shed students who will bring down score averages). Neither does she report on the number of special education students, English learners, and extremely poor children enrolled (or not enrolled) at DC Prep in comparison to statistics for the District’s traditional public schools.
What does the Walmartization of American public education mean for the public education system that developed over two of centuries and that aspired to serve all of our society’s children? Here we move from from the market world of Walmart to the more abstract principles of education philosophy, political philosophy, and public morality. How quaint these ideas have come to seem in our corporatized and marketized world. Our society has traditionally affirmed the principle that public education—publicly funded, universally available, required to accept all children who present themselves at the door, and accountable to the public—is the best way to try to ensure that all children are served. We have thought of the public schools as the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need for a system that secures the rights of all children. These goals have been aspirational, and we have made slow but sure progress in expanding the rights of children in marginalized groups to kind of public education that middle class children in the dominant culture have taken for granted.
Even in our corporatized world, there are proponents of a public system of education. In a stirring address in 2000, at Teachers College, Columbia University, the late Senator Paul Wellstone describes society’s public moral obligation to serve all children. He critiques the lack of equity in our public schools even as he speaks for public schools as the site where we must work collectively to serve all children: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson expresses the same profound ideal in this pithy observation: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”
Wellstone and Jackson remind us of society’s obligation to our collective children, but the idea is not merely that we aspire to equity for the sake of doing the good thing. Both also believe that society itself benefits when all are prepared to participate actively in our democracy and all are prepared to share their gifts socially, politically, and economically. Just over a hundred years ago, John Dewey, America’s best known philosopher of education, described this public benefit from universal public education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”
For help thinking about the pervasive consumerism and commercialization of just about everything in our society today, I find myself drawn to Consumed, a fascinating book by the political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Consider the following passage in the context of Motoko Rich’s article on the Walton Foundation’s school privatization enterprise: “The transfer of public power to private hands often is associated with a devolution of power; but in fact privatizing power does not devolve but only commercializes it, placing it in private hands that may be as centralized and monopolistic as government, although usually far less transparent and accountable, and also pervasively commercial.”(p. 145)
Barber would worry about turning the privatization of education over to Sam Walton, his descendents and the program officers of the Walton Foundation. He would caution that these folks are less likely than a deliberative public body to look out for the interests of the children who are being lured into the charter schools in the District of Columbia and America’s other big cities these days: “The idea that liberty entails only private choice runs afoul of our actual experiences as consumers and citizens. We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.”(p. 139)