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Who's your sugar daddy? 

Waltons bankroll movement to get public money for church schools.

click to enlarge WHERE THE MONEY COMES FROM: Walmart profits have helped build a key source of support for private school vouchers.
  • WHERE THE MONEY COMES FROM: Walmart profits have helped build a key source of support for private school vouchers.

Many right-wing groups promote school vouchers, a way to get public money for church schools, but according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, "The undisputed sugar daddy in the world of voucher groups is the Walton Family Foundation. In fact, it's hard to imagine a voucher movement without the Walton clan."

Headquartered in Bentonville, as is Walmart, the Walton Family Foundation is operated by the heirs of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. An article in the September issue of Church & State, the publication of Americans United, says "the foundation dished out $175,490,114 in 2008. While much of the money went to community groups, universities and charitable organizations, a huge chunk went to pro-voucher organizations as well. The Alliance for School Choice, for example, got $2,231,880."

The Alliance for School Choice is a pro-voucher lobby group in Washington. Also located in Washington is the Black Alliance for Educational Options: "Formed by Howard Fuller at Marquette University, a Roman Catholic institution, the BAEO is a front group that purports to represent African Americans who are pro-voucher. Far from being grassroots-driven, the organization receives much of its funding from right-wing foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation, the John Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. In 2008, the BAEO received more than half of its funding, $2,050,000, from the Walton Family Foundation." The BAEO's annual budget is $3,838,229, according to the article.

A similar group is the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. Based in Lake Worth, Fla., it seeks to mobilize the Latino community in support of vouchers. The council has a budget of just over $1 million, $200,000 of which came from the Walton Foundation.

Yet another voucher group, the Center for Education Reform in Bethesda, Md., receives about one-third of its $1.5 million annual budget from the Walton Foundation.

"Sugar daddy" though the Walton Foundation may be, the Church & State article devotes more space to the activities of a Michigan multi-millionaire named Betsy DeVos, who has announced the formation of a national group called the American Federation for Children, to fight for voucher subsidies for religious schools. The article says the Federation is actually "just a rebranding effort for a group previously known as Advocates for School Choice. Why the name change? DeVos, a fundamentalist Christian and far-right political activist, probably wanted to jump-start the pro-voucher drive with at least the appearance of something new. At the same time, the revised moniker was a slap at the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers' union much loathed by DeVos and her allies. ...

"Driven by a relentless faith in ultra-conservative religion and the privatization of public services, DeVos and her husband, Dick, who is best known as the former president of Amway, are pouring millions from their personal fortune into a nationwide voucher push. They'll be bringing plenty of anti-public school allies along for the ride – chief among them the Walton Family Foundation ... "

This involvement "could mark a turning point for voucher advocacy," the article says. "For years, the drive for private school subsidies was led chiefly by lobbyists hired by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. With DeVos and Co., the bishops will have a strong new ally ... "

Here in Arkansas, we know the Walton Foundation for giving $300 million to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. It's said to be the largest private gift ever made to a public university. Conditions were imposed, most visibly the creation of a new department of education reform, which advocates for alternatives to public education, such as charter schools and vouchers. The head of the department, Jay P. Greene, is a nationally prominent voucherist.

The Waltons and other super-rich Arkansans have for some time assailed the state's public schools and encouraged the formation of more charter schools. They're cheered on by the state's largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose publisher, Walter Hussman, is another antagonist of public schools and teachers' unions. The Walton Family Foundation also has a senior officer, Naccaman Williams, in a place where he regularly influences school policy in Arkansas as chairman of the state Board of Education. He has said he sees no conflict in acting on school-choice matters the board considers.

The Walton Family Foundation was invited by the Times to comment on the Church & State article. It did not.

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