How the Cutthroat Walmart Business Model Is Reshaping American Public Education

By Jeff Bryant, director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy. Originally published at Alternet

Walmart’s recent decision to close 269 stores was a blip on the national media radar, but it was big news in small towns and suburban neighborhoods across America.

“Now we have to figure out how to do our shopping,” a Walmart customer in Baldwin Hills, in Southern California lamented.

“Before Walmart’s arrival, Winnsboro had two grocery stores,” a local reporter in that South Carolina town noted. Now that Walmart is gone, so is convenient access to groceries and other retail goods.

“It’s the traditional story of a big corporation driving local competition out of town,” an article in Texas Monthly stated, “and then leaving.”

A Walmart spokesperson told a reporter covering a store closure in a small Mississippi community that closing stores is “strictly a business decision… It made fiscal sense.”

That rationale is nothing new. Stories about local communities being devastated by business decisions made in distant headquarters have become a staple of this era. Time and time again, the nation has witnessed whole towns being hollowed out when big companies uproot local manufacturing plants to move to cheaper labor markets in Mexico or China.

The cause of the trauma and grief is always the same: “strictly business.” “Fiscal sense.”

But what if that story isn’t just about businesses anymore? What if instead of a closed factory or shuttered store, the story is about a closed public school? What if the consequence of these types of “business decisions” isn’t a grown man having to look for another job or an elderly woman having to figure out a new way to pick up her prescriptions, but a child having his or her education significantly disrupted or a whole community left without convenient access to schools?

That question is becoming increasingly urgent as more and more government officials turn to publicly funded but privately run charter schools to compete with and upend local public schools—an education option, it is worth noting, that the family behind the Walmart empire has played a huge role in promoting and funding nationwide.

The Walmart Way For Education

At the same time news of Walmart store closings spread through local media outlets, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF), the private foundation created with the retail giant’s wealth, announced that it would be “doubling down on its investments in school choice with a $1 billion plan to help expand the charter school sector and other choice initiatives over the next five years,” according to a report in Education Week.

This immense treasure trove for expanding the number of charter schools in the country comes in addition to the millions the Waltons have already spent on charter schools. In fact, the foundation’s “strategic plan,” published in 2015, claims, “1 in 4 charters nationally have received WFF startup funds.”

In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, education historian Diane Ravitch explores whether there is any “commonality between the Walmart business philosophy and the Walton funding of school choice.” She likens the competition that charters pose to public schools to the competition that Walmart stores present to locally owned stores, and suggests parallel consequences: just as Walmart forces stores that can’t match their prices to shut their doors, so charters — which bleed students, and their funding, from traditional schools — cause local schools to close down.

Is the analogy Ravitch poses fair and accurate? Or is this new model for school options being promoted by the Waltons and other self-ascribed education “reformers” something more nuanced? Is there any evidence that their plans for distributing “quality” education are more efficient than democratic governance?

The Waltons Go To School

As the Walmart retail chain became the world’s largest retailer, the Walton family became one of the world’s richest families, with a combined net worth of around $150 billion as of January 2016.

The Walton Family Foundation—the family’s main philanthropic endeavor—was established in 1987 by Walmart founder Sam Walton and his wife Helen. In Sam Walton’s autobiography Made in America, he voices a concern for America’s public school system and links education and national economic prosperity, particularly in the context of being able to “compete” with other nations.

Since its founding, WFF has given more than $1.3 billion to K-12 education, according to its own recent calculations, an amount that is surpassed only by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation’s most recent annual report shows well over 50 percent of its 2014 grantee investments went to education ($202.4 million out of $373 million).

Sam Walton’s concerns about America’s public education system were no doubt fed by the animosity toward public schools that spread during the 1980s and, in particular, the presidential administration of Ronal Reagan.

Reagan had campaigned in 1980 on abolishing the department of education, according to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, and declared in a speech in 1984, “America’s schools don’t need new spending programs; they need tougher standards, more homework, merit pay for teachers, discipline, and parents back in charge.”

The landmark report from Reagan’s presidency, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” published in 1983, set the tone for those years and the years following, warning of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education “that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

That report proved to be “a golden treasury of selected, spun, and distorted statistics,” noted the late education policy scholar, and Reagan critic Gerald Bracey, 25 years after the report’s publication. Nevertheless, it was hugely influential.

According to the Philanthropy Roundtable, Sam Walton’s second-eldest son, John, who would take control of the Walton Family Foundation after his father’s death in 1992, read “A Nation at Risk” the year it was published and “circulated it among family members,” prompting “a number of discussions” in the family about ways to improve education and influencing his father to announce, “I’d like to see an all-out revolution in education.”

At first, the Walton’s education philanthropy “followed the usual course of education giving,” the Philanthropy Roundtable quotes John Walton recollecting of those early years, doling out money to “programs you hope will address the problems.” But at some point during the 1990s, John Walton’s patience with this approach wore thin, as he found “the improvements [to be] transitory, lasting only as long as the heroes making them work are on the job.”

To create more immediate and lasting change, John Walton came to believe, his foundation’s approach to public education would have to change. The agent of change would be “school choice.”

The Friedman Effect

The whole idea of school choice, most policy experts believe, is credited to the extreme libertarian Friedman Foundation, founded in 1996 by the economist Milton Friedman and his wife Rose to advance his ideas for how to improve K–12 education systems.

“Our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured,” Friedman argued in 1995. “Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system—i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop … a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools.”

It’s not hard to see why John Walton’s conception of how to improve American schools would be heavily influenced by Friedman’s preference for school choice; both individuals viewed the world through the lens of rational markets. And year after year, the Friedman Foundation has been a consistent recipient of grant money from WFF.

Central to Friedman’s ideology was that schools should be thought of as businesses, with students being, essentially, customers. “In order to have satisfactory performance, you have to have a customer who needs to be served,” Friedman explained in an interview with the conservative Heartland Magazine in 1998.

Where public education had gone wrong in America, according to Friedman, was that the students’ role as the customer in the system had been displaced by the “professionalization and unionization” of teachers. Teachers unions had made education a “monopoly,” Friedman believed, and he falsely correlated the National Education Association’s conversion to trade union status in 1965 to a drop in scores on the SAT. (The scores changed because more students were taking the test.)

As Friedman saw it, “the only solution” to fixing the nation’s education monopoly was “through a system of vouchers.” As long as public schools were essentially free, and private schools charged tuition, most parents would keep sending their kids to the local public school. But introducing a voucher that could be “redeemed” by parents at a private school would break that dynamic, and in turn, break up the public education monopoly.

Friedman’s theory is, of course, grounded in what the Walton family practiced in retail: provide customers with the products they want (in this case, a “good” education for their children), at lower prices, and eventually drive merchants that are unable to compete out of business. Enterprises that are able to endure this churn in the marketplace, the theory holds, will be strengthened by their abilities to hold their customers.

Friedman’s animosity toward teachers unions also meshed with the Walton’s anti-union business practices. As freelance writer T. A. Frank writes for Washington Monthly, Sam Walton was obsessed with lowering business costs, especially payroll, and he believed loyal employees were created by giving them a stake in the business—through profit-sharing, stock options, and other means—rather than by giving them higher wages.

After the founder’s death in 1992, his progeny eliminated many of the employee retention policies Sam Walton created, Frank recalls, but the vigilant opposition to unions remained. While Sam Walton countered the first pro-union outbreak in his stores in 1989 with a series of management seminars exhorting his managers to “care” about frontline employees, his children, in 2000, responded to union activity among the company’s meat cutters by shutting down operations, finding alternative contractors, and summarily firing the instigators of the union organizing.

Fully inculcated with Friedman’s philosophies, and motivated by the myth of school failure spread by the Reagan administration, the Waltons were ready for their education revolution to begin.

A Preference For School Vouchers

John Walton launched the foundation’s battle for school choice by throwing both money and influence into a succession of voucher referendums throughout the 1990s and beyond — only to see the cause defeated at the ballot box time after time, as numerous studies have chronicled. The public, it would seem, was nowhere near as keen on the idea of vouchers as the Waltons and their ilk.

Then in 1998, came the Walton family’s earliest ventures into direct funding of school choice, according to Education Week, when John Walton joined with New York City financier Theodore J. Forstmann to pledge $100 million “to launch a national privately financed voucher program that would offer scholarships to as many as 50,000 poor students.”

A voucher of $1,000 would be given to each qualifying family to cover most of the cost of attending a Catholic private school, which, at the time, typically cost $1,500 in tuition annually. The idea was a scaling up of an effort the previous year by both Walton and Forstmann to give $6 million to the Washington Scholarship Fund, an organization that offered scholarships to students who wanted to transfer from public schools to private Catholic schools in the nation’s capital. Neither Walton nor Forstmann appear to be followers of the Catholic faith.

In a rare interview for Bloomberg Business Week in 2000, John Walton explained his preference for school vouchers over traditional giving to public education institutions.

“I’ve also invested in public schools,” he explained, and the interviewer makes note of “investments in New American Schools, scholarships, teacher and principal training, and other programs that work inside traditional public schools.”

But then Walton adds, “I will say that we have had a much more difficult time evaluating the benefits of those investments than we have our [private voucher] investments, where the benefits are so clear and convincing.

At some point amidst repeated defeats at the ballot box and his frustrations with direct funding vouchers, John Walton decided “choice” needed another option.

The Waltons Choose Charters

That other option was charter schools.

“The Walton foundation itself was one of the early organizations to transition from vouchers to charters,” explains Jeffrey R. Henig in an interview for Education Week. Henig is a political science and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and a co-editor of the book The New Education Philanthropy.

In a phone interview with AlterNet, Henig explained that the succession of ballot box losses, as well as numerous opinion polls conducted by conservative groups, influenced John Walton and other voucher advocates to conclude charter schools were the “more politically feasible” option, in Henig’s words.

Henig believes many conservatives view charter schools as a way to “soften the ground” for potentially more private options, though he isn’t entirely sure “the Waltons view charters as a Trojan Horse for eventually providing vouchers universally.”

Nevertheless, he has little doubt the current intention of the foundation is to “rapidly expand the number of charter schools to create a constituency of parents and others who will have a direct stake in the continued funding and expansion of these schools.”

“The Walton Family Foundation has been the strongest and most consistent force in the nation advancing charter schools,” as Ravitch notes. And that has remained true, even after John Walton’s untimely death in a plane crash, in June of 2005.

A Controversial Charter Legacy

Since John Walton’s death, a number of other family members have taken up his passion for promoting school choice, particularly in the form of charter schools.

According to a pro-union website, another member of the Walton family, Carrie Walton Penner, sits on the board of the foundation connected to the prominent KIPP charter school chain—on which the Walton Family Foundation has lavished many millions in donations—and is also a member of the California Charter Schools Association. Carrie’s husband, Greg Penner, “is a director of the Charter Growth Fund, a ‘non-profit venture capital fund’ investing in charter schools.” And Annie Walton Proietti, the daughter of Sam Walton’s youngest son Jim, works for a KIPP school in Denver.

Certainly there are beneficiaries beyond charter schools of WFF education money, most notably Teach for America, which has raked in tens of millions of dollars over the years. But year in and year out, top recipients of the Walton Foundation’s largesse are charter schools themselves and the many national, state, and local organizations and political groups that serve and promote school choice and the charter industry. Even TFA is closely associated with charter schools, with a third of the program’s recruits working in those schools.

Yet this unquestioning commitment to charter schools seems grossly detached from the controversy that charters have become in the American education landscape.

The charter school sector has been rife with financial scandal. Local news reports of charter school malfeasance and corruption have become commonplace in states where these schools have proliferated, such as in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

A series of reports from the Center for Popular Democracy in 2014 and 2015 uncovered many hundreds of millions in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country. Authors of the 2015 report called their discovery the “tip of the iceberg.”

The financial problems caused by charter schools stem from the particular blend of public and private players involved. As a recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center explains, the very structure of the charter school business introduces new actors into public education who can skim money from the system without returning any benefit to students and taxpayers.

The brief’s authors Bruce Baker and Gary Miron – university professors from Rutgers and Eastern Michigan, respectively – note that charters generally aren’t subject to the same disclosure laws that apply to state operated entities and public officials, especially when the governance bodies for these schools outsource management services to for-profit management firms, as is increasingly the case.

The very nature of charters, the authors state, results in a “substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children…being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain.”

Furthering the financial controversy related to charters is the model of how these schools are financed.

As currently conceived, charter schools are funded based on the idea that “money should follow the child.” That is, when students transfer from a public school to a new charter, the per-pupil funding to educate that child transfers as well.

But research studies have shown that this financial model harms the education of public school students. As a public school loses a percentage of its students to charters, the school can’t simply cut fixed costs for things like transportation and physical plant proportionally. It also can’t cut the costs of grade-level teaching staff proportionally. That would increase class sizes and leave the remaining students underserved. So instead, the school cuts a program or support service – a reading specialist, a special education teacher, a librarian, an art or music teacher – to offset the loss of funding.

For these reasons, and others, the introduction of charter schools into communities now invariably sparks division and resentment from parents who stay committed to public schools.

Yet, none of the controversy surrounding charters seems to have altered the Walton Family Foundation’s determination to expand the numbers of these schools on the American landscape.

Answering the Critics

WFF’s apparently unwavering course for charter expansion has drawn prominent critics.

A recent report by Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, looks closely at the Foundation’s education reform efforts, especially in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, and concludes that the “preformulated, specific approach” WFF employs, “fixated on very particular market reform vehicles: publicly funded charter schools and vouchers to attend private schools,” is in fact a hinderance to the “transformative potential of the foundation’s education program.”

As an apparent response, WFF recently issued a paper titled, “Investing in Change: The Walton Family Foundation Charts a New Course,” wherein the Foundation admits that its devotion to “expanding community-wide school choice” may not be “sufficient to improve educational outcomes.” But the paper’s author, Michelle Wisdom, reasons that that insufficiency stems from something other than WFF’s guiding philosophy.

Calling school choice a “theory of change,” Wisdom asserts, “School choice works.” What’s needed now, she argues, is “a favorable policy environment for choice to be truly effective.”

Responding to Wisdom’s paper, Strauss writes on her Washington Post blog, “Choice isn’t enough? So what is?” Most likely, Strauss deduces, nothing short of a total “dismantling [of] traditional public school systems.”

The Formula

“We’re at the early stage of the beginning of the end of public schools,” former classroom teacher and prominent public school advocate Anthony Cody tells Alternet in a phone conversation. “You can already see this in big cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, and Chicago.”

Cody is a harsh critic of education philanthropists. For years he engaged in a public debate with leaders of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided material for his book The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation. Cody is also cofounder, along with Ravitch and other education reform critics, of the Network for Public Education.

Cody sees Gates, another major funder of the charter school industry, and Walton as “operating with the same playbook;” although he acknowledges there are differences (notably around vouchers). What the two foundations share, Cody believes, is a devotion to operating schools according to “their belief in business systems.”

He argues that having charter schools compete with local public schools around student test scores will “corrupt education,” as schools chase after ever higher scores at the expense of educating all children equitably. In Cody’s mind, this will inevitably lead to expansions of charter schools, which have more leeway to game the system, and the closure of more public schools.

“There’s no way to compromise with this formula,” he contends, and “no end point at which applying the formula would stop because it impinges on human dignity.”

Cody isn’t the only critic who sees a fundamental problem with choice. When the late Rick Cohen of the Nonprofit Quarterly reflected on the Philamplify study of the Walton Foundation, he argued that “choice” makes education, ultimately, “a zero-sum [game], focused on the individual and the family and increasingly saying to hell with community… What’s lost is what the nation was trying to achieve in the first place with public education.”

Choice For Who?

Is the Walmart Foundation really intent on dismantling public education through its expansions of charter schools?

Henig argues no, saying the debate of charters versus public schools is not what really what matters “at the parent level.”

In his view, the debate about choice needs to shift from being about charter versus public schools to focusing on the role of democracy in school governance and how to “calibrate” democratic input in decision-making about schools.

That’s an important subject for sure, but when Henig says the debate about charters is not relevant at “the parent level,” it’s not clear what parents he is referring to. He’s clearly not talking about parents in Southside Chicago, where in 2013, families reeled from a rash of school closings coupled with charter school expansions.

As Sarah Karp reported for Catalyst Chicago, Walton had made Chicago its largest recipient of charter school grants, then gave the district additional financial support for a series of community meetings to “educate parents” about the school closures and obscure the role of charter schools. The WFF money paid for “robo-calls to tell parents about the meetings, mailings to parents and ‘other engagement and communication platforms.’”

This churning of public school closings with charter school openings left some stretches of the community without any schools at all, according to an article by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC. Calling these neighborhoods “school deserts,” much like the food deserts many low-income communities know about all too well, Lee quotes community activist Jitu Brown: “This is not about school choice. If it was really about providing us with choices, we’d have the choice to improve our neighborhood schools.”

That the spread of school choice can actually leave some communities with fewer educational options is not a matter constrained to Chicago alone.

In cities such as New Orleans, which now has an all charter system, whole neighborhoods are bereft of schools, and it is now quite common for students to spend hours a day in transit as they trek from their homes to available schools across town. Conditions are similar in some areas of Houston, TX, where parents have coined the term “education desert” to describe “areas where a significant number or share of residents is far from schools.”

“This crisis has reached critical mass,” the Houston parents contend.

Choice Hurts America’s Heartland

Around the same time Walmart was closing stores in rural North Carolina, parents in an Appalachian community in that state gathered at a hearing to fight for their local public school to keep it from being closed down. “Many in the audience sobbed as students talked about losing what to them has been the center of their world as long as they can remember,” a local newspaper reported.

The local reporter noted a “trifecta” of factors leading to the imminent closure. Two in the trifecta—declining student enrollment and state budget cuts—are factors school officials and communities across America have faced many times before. But the third factor was new: “charter school competition.”

We’ll never know if this is an outcome John Walton considered when he committed his family’s billions to the expansion of charters and choice.

What we do know for sure, though, is that when he made his decision to pull back from direct investments in public schools, he did so because he did not see the kind of results he wanted to see.

But what if John Walton’s disappointment in public schools stems from the possibility that Americans, as a whole, want other kinds of “results” from their public schools? What if what they want, as Jitu Brown says of his own community, is the opportunity to “improve our neighborhood schools” instead of having them replaced by the charters preferred by the Waltons?

Meanwhile, as WFF contemplates how to best “soften the ground” for increased school choice, and policy makers ponder the growing impact of philanthropists in education, more communities may have to contend with the reality of schools, public or charter, coming and going based on forces not in their control. Completely lost in the discussion, though, is whether it’s right for the American populace to have its access to education determined by the values and philosophy of a few rich people.

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  1. divadab

    Conversion of public treasure to private profit – the bi-partisan story of the past 35 years, starting with Reagan’s deregulation-caused S&L collapse, and taxpayer-funded bailout, through the Bushco medicare expansion (a gift to the insurance industry), the massive Bushco-Obama bank bailout, and now the insurance industry-designed ACA.

    Fucking looters in suits.

    1. Reggie

      You forgot to list the privatization of the military and our water supplies, among many others.

      The role of society and communities in all this, “what should we do”, is completely lost. Even this article only touches on how the role of a school as a social and community institution enriches and connects life and lives well beyond the test scores.

      1. Uncle Bruno

        Yup, it’s not just schools, it’s any notion of social cohesion among working people. The concern for the kid next door has to be suppressed the same as the concern for the widow around the corner or the neighbor who got hurt on the job.

        Sure, there’s some money to be made in education and plenty of Northwestern MBAs who need work, but it’s a small-time grift, though it’s more feasible than going after Social Security or Medicare. But it’s very effective generational warfare and probably part of a longer-term play. If they can get boomers to sell millenials’ kids down the river, there’s a good chance millenials will return the favor on Social Security and Medicare when they get the chance. At least, that’s the way I would play it if I were trying to put my boot on the neck of the population.

    2. jds

      A crucial aspect this paper missed was the fact that charters cherry pick students, leaving the ELL, autism, wheel chair kids at the public school. Now the public school has the least performing , highest cost students, causing a downward spiral until it is called a failure and closed, subsequently all the public money now going to the high-cost administration, low-cost teacher charter.
      Charters’ main benefit from a parent’s point-of-view is that it segregates the bad kids (whom the charter wont enroll) from the good kids. The actual charters themselves suck educationally, like McDonalds sucks at nutrition.
      This is the only factor I see in slowing the charter juggernaut: In the suburbs there are no bad kids (gangbangers, dealers, etc.). There is no ‘demand’ for charters there. Frankly, the U.S. needs to go European and create schools based on test score segregation. There is no alternative, as the charters will fill that role.

  2. DakotabornKansan

    I vividly remember the 1950s growing up in South Dakota. Republican Senator Karl Mundt never tired of telling us that the communists wanted to destroy our democracy. Looking back over time, I believe that we ourselves did more to hurt democracy than the communists ever did. Today, our education philanthropists are making great strides toward the destruction of our democracy.

    We are a nation at risk. We are rapidly becoming a caste society. As described above, a truly public school system no longer exists in large parts of our nation. It has been replaced by a private school system developed under public auspices. Equality of educational opportunity continues today for many to be more a myth than a reality. By scapegoating teachers and underfunding schools we’re destroying public education and willfully condemning the futures of poor children in our society.

    At the recent Democratic Town Hall in Ohio, Bernie Sanders was asked whether he supported charter schools. “I believe in public education, and I believe in public charter schools,” said Sanders. “I do not believe in private—privately controlled charter schools.”

    Bernie contradicts himself, which suggests he doesn’t know that charters purposely call themselves “public charters” to deceive people. He doesn’t seem to know much about charter schools. Charter schools are not public schools.

    In her 1996 book It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton endorsed charters as the innovation that could overcome stifling bureaucracy and return control to parents and teachers. Clinton, a decades-long supporter of charter schools, after looking at the evidence, now rebukes charter schools. Her words pander and conceal. At the same Ohio Democratic Town Hall, she said that charters still have a place in the American education system. Her campaign manager is a longtime corporate education reformer.

    “I emphasize teachers because they are largely left out of the debate. None of the bombastic reports that come from Washington and think tanks telling us what needs to be ‘fixed’ – I hate such a mechanistic word, as if our schools were automobile engines – ever asks the opinions of teachers.”

    “Good teachers don’t approach a child of this age with overzealousness or with destructive conscientiousness. They’re not drill-masters in the military or floor managers in a production system. They are specialists in opening small packages. They give the string a tug but do it carefully. They don’t yet know what’s in the box. They don’t know if it’s breakable. ” – Jonathan Kozol

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      There are such things as public charters schools, that is charter schools under the direction of the local school district and board. (In fact, IIRC the original Minnesota legislation that created the first charter schools envisioned only public charter schools.) We have 3 here in Madison. They offer different curriculum that the “regular” public schools but are otherwise governed by the same rules, including teacher standards and teacher pay.

  3. Steve H.

    This really rounds up and puts a bow on the conversations at NC about education recently. Drive out and degrade the local centers in the community (stores and schools), get the people dependent on subsidized crapification (food stamps for WalMart workers, vouchers for charter schools), and then yank the rug when the margins aren’t there.

    I’ll quote/paraphrase from memory my wife’s grandfather, who has a school named after him: “Building a nation is like building a house with brick walls. Every brick must be strong for the wall to be strong. Every citizen must be educated for the nation to be strong.”

  4. Moneta

    The US economy is still based on the generation of ghost towns. A hit and run philosophy. But with the state of our environment and the sheer number of people, we can’t afford to do this anymore. We need to build quality and maintain it properly.

  5. Edward Downie

    In The Affluent Society John Kenneth Galbraith advocated taxing money away from people lest they get into mischief with it.

    1. PQS

      Walton Family = Greatest Argument for both Steep Inheritance and Income Taxes

      Everything they touch turns to garbage, and nothing can touch THEM with their billions.

    2. Jim Haygood

      We’re well along that path, as illustrated by a couple of charts. First, per pupil expenditures in public schools, 1920-2012 [jpg chart]:

      Second, K-12 per pupil spending in the OECD:

      If this second chart looks familiar, it’s because it rhymes with U.S. health care expenditures: stratospherically high, yet producing inferior results compared to other countries.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        Certainly, at least some of that “waste” is in fact due to US health care costs, which are insanely costly to school districts just as they are to other employers who offer health insurance.

  6. Dr. George W. Oprisko

    Yves, I know you will delete this post………….

    I’m a 40 year veteran pedagogist(educator). I’ve taught everything from kindergarden to graduate school……..

    The US had an excellent public education system in the 50s – 60s. I know, I’m a product of it. We had dedicated career teachers, who challenged us to excel.

    Then we got union bashing…….. payless paydays…… performance criteria……

    The current crisis in public education is the consequence of failed choices……. Instead of working with the teachers unions….. they were crushed……. Instead of supporting maverick teachers experiments WRT improving their teaching……. they were crushed…… Instead of running schools with teachers in charge………. administrators, with no teaching experience were put in charge……..
    Instead of hiring and paying for the brightest…….. the low pay attracted deadwood……….

    Now, we have all these ideas………… and until the basic errors are fixed……. they will join the others in the dustbin of history.


    1. Jerry Hamrick

      I was educated in the 50s, and taught until 1965 in a large Texas high school. Things were as you have said. It was all good. I went into computers and worked there until I retired in 1995. In that profession I was a consumer of the output of our education system. It was good for a long while, but then it began to degrade a little. The new hires were not willing to work as hard as the old timers, even though they were paid quite a lot more, even after adjusting for inflation.

      When I retired I lived in Plano, TX which was then, and maybe still is, regarded as one of the best systems in Texas. I had kept my teaching credentials up to date, and because there was a shortage of math teachers, I applied to do some substitute teaching in Plano. In a very short time I was asked to take a six-week assignment in one of Plano’s high schools. The regular teacher had to take time off for unexpected emergency surgery. So, I went to work. I was shocked at what I saw.

      Even before I went to work I met with the woman who I was going to replace and she told me about her classes. I asked for a copy of the textbook (I would be teaching five classes of Algebra II), and she told me that they did not have a textbook. I simply could not believe that, and pressed for more information. She told me that the teachers in her department (she was department head BTW) did not like the textbook they had been issued so they were writing their own. She told me that at the beginning of each day, I and the other Algebra II teachers would be given a copy of that day’s lesson. It was handwritten, and often contained errors.

      I went to class, and found that I could not use the blackboard. My job was to use an overhead projector and copy that day’s lesson onto a foil for the students to copy. Some students were slower copyists than the others and they cried out when I had to go to the next slide. This was just plain nuts. So, I would take each day’s lesson and go to the copy room and make copies for all my students to hand out at the beginning of the class. I pushed the overhead projector to the side and used the blackboards on three walls of my classroom to discuss the day’s lesson. The students relaxed, paid more attention, and told me how much the appreciated the change. I even heard favorable comments from some of their parents.

      But, as you might expect I got in trouble. I was called in to the asst principal’s office and he told me to return to the original method. I refused, and I told him that I would contact the local media if he fired me.
      I stayed for the entire six-weeks.

      Another thing they did was to have classes on MWF and TT like college. This is nuts. If a student came to class on M, and heard the discussion, and if he missed W, he would not be available for me to answer his questions or to do my own follow up until F. This means that 96 hours would have elapsed between lesson and reinforcement. That is an impossibly long time for a high school student.

      But the worst part, was that my six-week assignment included a period for taking the state exams. Even though most of my students were not taking those tests I would have to show movies to my classes. My students, all of them, lost one full week of education which is about 3% of their class time that year.

      And finally, discipline was atrocious. There were some fights, one of which I helped break up. It was between two girls and they were throwing punches, kicking, and cursing. But the problem of classroom and hallway conduct was bad. Students would wander up and down the halls during classes without passes. And they would talk during class. One of my biggest problems was in a class right after lunch. It was tough for the first week, but I noticed that one of the girls, dressed in goth garb with the black nails and the weird hair colors was actually a level-headed person and I asked her to help me get things under control. It only took a couple of days but she did it. She would give some of the boys who were being disruptive a really stern look and things would calm down. The other classes were no problem.

      I hope that my experience was unusual, and now I live in another school district. My neighbor’s children are now all in high school and they are good kids. They are smart, well-behaved, and willing to work. From time to time I hire them to help me with yard work that I am too old to handle. I predict good things for them, provided they enter into an adult society that still values knowledge, decorum, and hard work.

      1. flora

        Thanks for this comment.
        Photocopying the day’s lesson to save class time for instruction and questions is an excellent idea. Shocking that you got in trouble for using common sense.

      2. griffen

        Wow, that’s a startling anecdote. I located to Collin County in 2006, stayed there until 2015. While I do not have children, I did find the Plano area to be moderately wealthy to varying degrees and in different economic cycles; I gained the impression the school district was a well-run district.

    2. Mike McMack

      Dr. George, this isn’t Human Events! Teachers and unions are blamed for far too much, but unions and tenure are certainly some part of the problem. The absolute worst teacher my son had in grade school, the prototypical tenured, most lazy person I have ever met, who spent her time writing little numbers next to red, yellow and green check boxes in a log book (Ohh just look THIS kid stood up 4 times this week, and THAT kid spoke out of turn 7 times this week and THIS kid put his book away too early 2 times!….) and this was the ONLY teacher in teh school who did not cover enough material for the kids to take the required weak Massachusetts public school tests. Side by wide with the absolute best teacher (who was also tenured), who took work home, spent her own personal time looking for the best recreational books to suggest, who covered far more than the minimum required to take the MA tests. Teachers and school systems need the power to be able to push out the terrible, lazy people get gravitate into teh system, and help bring the whole thing down. And, OK don’t even get me started on parents who let kids sit in front of video games, and tinkering with text messaging and facebook instead of reading and studying, that is a huge part of the equation as well.

  7. Paul Tioxon

    So, finally, we understand that free enterprise, capitalism, is a
    political force greater than the drive to compete in the market by setting up a better pin factory. That the outreach of capitalist principles becomes the bedrock set of premises upon which innumerable disruptive arguments are constructed. Disruptions of democratically controlled public authority, the state at the largest scale and the local school district, one of the very last vestiges of political power that a citizen can directly lay claim to and not sound like a Commie Pinko Fag. Now, that is being undermined, because the shareholder value, I mean, the taxpayers have rights too, not just citizens with kids who rent apartments and don’t own anything!!!

    And of course, the dinosaurs of the Fortune 500 that crush their competition and go extinct don’t provide a plan B for when their era passes, but people still live in the towns they disrupted, paid some property taxes to fund public education, made a payroll, again, with possible revenue for the state and definite catastrophic consequences when they pack up and leave. But then, the entire NorthEastern USA has been through that Rust Belt disruption, provided by capitalism and their rights to manage their business as they damn well please, because of “freedoms”. And capitalism, enmeshing each and all in its path to profits, the commodification process whereby a miraculous transformation into a price worthy object is placed within the great market as supply for competing demand. No dominating political power of the rich here to see, just property rights, move along.

  8. human

    Let’s see…$1B could give one thousand school systems $1 million each. Wow!

    Alternatively, paying Walmart employees a livable wage, $40 – $50k per year, would empower local and state governments with the time and means to reinvest in their public schools.

    1. tegnost

      “paying Walmart employees a livable wage, $40 – $50k per year”
      you’re going to give some poor MBA a heart attack, talking like that

  9. Jim Haygood

    From a 2014 news article:

    New Jersey isn’t one of the 24 states that offer some form of initiative and referendum (I&R).

    It’s not as if New Jersey politicians haven’t promised to enact I&R. In 1991, the Republican Party made that pledge, then won control of the Legislature in the great voter rebellion against Gov. Jim Florio’s tax hikes. Once in charge, Republicans changed their mind.

    In fact, N.J. teachers and school board administrators unions were the major actors in defeating I&R in 1991. And they are still at it today:

    “NJSBA [New Jersey School Boards Association] has clear policy opposing I&R as a dilution of representative democracy.”

    Rich, huh? Popular democracy must be suppressed at all costs. Because the first thing the people would do via I&R would be to slash their crushing property taxes, two-thirds of which go to public schools. It would win by a epic landslide.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      I think you are incorrect that “the people” would do this. Given educational apartheid, it is possible that residents of wealthy suburbs with good schools and relatively low (even if absolutely high) property tax burdens would advocate thus, but I don’t think they represent a majority of NJ voters. For the vast majority of the others, whether urban or rural, it would be a tough call, because they know that their public schools are already starved of the assets they need to properly educate their children, or would be in short order if their crushing property taxes were slashed.

      1. Jim Haygood

        School boards certainly don’t trust the people, as indicated by their report.

        It never occurs to them that I&R also can be used to increase educational funding, such as a proposition that will be on the ballot in Arizona this November.

        But in the old, corrupt eastern states, the political brute force of insider influence is the easiest way to maintain exorbitant privilege.

  10. TedWa

    The state supreme court here in Washington rightly found Charter Schools un-Constitutional. Will the rule of law win the day across the nation? Deconstructing America block by block. They never should have been bailed out.

  11. susan the other

    Like most everything else in our civilized world which we do not understand, we do not understand “education”. We assume, like pontificating twits, that it comes from the outside in. Education is nothing other than learning. Learning is complex and individual. It comes from the inside. Please do not intrude on my thinking, I’ll lose my train of thought and it was just getting interesting. Yet we do this intrusion to our children from preschool on. Summerhill was my favorite book on education. (It was ridiculed. Too bad. Our loss.) Let children find themselves and they will find their own ability to learn. Give them time. The education-award-winning Finns do just that. They let their kids play and be frivolously and seriously curious and secure until they are 7. Curiosity and playfulness are far more important mental abilities than rote learning. We are just idiots.

  12. Teddy

    I still can’t wrap my head around how anyone can think school voucher system is a good idea. If to (simplistically, of course) compare three possible models of providing education for children: socialized (funded by taxes and with public accountability), free market (funded by parents, no mandatory schooling, no accountability) and voucher, it seems the last one is a combination of the worst aspects of former two. Taxpayers are still forced to pay for it, but there are no more any standards, and in fact there’s a strong incentive for education providers (and possibly parents, if some kickback scheme would be implemented) to provide lowest quality possible.

    Anyway, I don’t understand “education as market” approach at all. How are 7-year old kids rational consumers on the marketplace, if they are not the ones paying for it or making decisions, and how possibly an actual market could even develop?

    1. jrs

      They 7 year olds aren’t supposed to be the market, their parents are. But that’s unfair. Yes and that is the EXISTING SYSTEM. Parents push hard to get their kid into good school districts, magnet schools etc.. Those whose parents aren’t so on the ball go to worse public schools and don’t have a chance really – and that is the existing system. At least around here. A *market* has ALREADY developed in public schools, only it’s mostly reflected in the real estate market (paying for a good school district).

      So if the public schools are bad where one lives, it’s not entirely unreasonable to think vouchers to go to private schools or something might work (the better off are often ALREADY sending their kids to private school afterall – so it seems to work for them) I’m not saying they will work. I’m saying why people might think so.

      The thing is in some parts of the country the system has sucked for some 30-40 years already. Now of course things can get even worse and they probably will.

      Sometimes I wonder what we need all this education for anyway. Ok that’s a rather cynical point of view. But for non-existent jobs? Or for political awareness? I think that at this point we’d be better off with teach-ins for the latter.

      1. tegnost

        the 7 yr olds are, however, future consumers, but the elite have a problem, it’s supposed to be carrot and stick (benefit or punishment) instead we have stick and bigger stick (we’ll beat you, or we’ll beat you worse) and they haven’t figured out (surprising as smart as they are) that the psychology doesn’t work,…(there needs to be a carrot, or at least a floppy bunny to chase around the track)

  13. baldski

    So, Bill Gates and the Waltons want to run schools as a business entity. They want to run government the same way. They put a business type in charge of Michigan and he wound up poisoning a bunch of children in Flint. The same thing will happen to education. It will be poisoned. Government and schools are not businesses.

  14. tongorad

    The billionaires plans for public education exploit American’s weakness for stupidity. Until these cultural/political assumptions are challenged, it will only get worse:

    Competition – the place from which all blessings flow
    Accountability – sinners in the hands of an angry market
    Efficiency – government sucks, the market is better
    Excellence – life is a game of winners and losers

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