As part of Wal-Mart’s back-to-school marketing efforts, the company recently launched a series of teacher appreciation videos, ads, hashtags and discounts. Teachers–who routinely dig deep into their own pockets to pay for supplies and materials for their students–are grateful for appreciation in all its forms. They are understandably less pleased when half-hearted discounts come from a company with a terrible track record for respecting its own employees and are accompanied by a large-scale effort to dismantle our nation’s public education system and silence their voice. In fact, teachers are so offended by the so-called education reform agenda promoted by Wal-Mart’s owners, the Waltons, that one teacher recently launched a petition calling on his peers not to shop at Wal-Mart this back-to-school season. More than 5,000 teachers have already added their names to his pledge.
A closer look at the Walton family’s massive investment in “education” paints a clear picture of why teachers are so upset. Since 2000, the Walton Family Foundation has given more than $1 billion to destabilize public education–draining funds from students and closing neighborhood schools, and instead supporting corporate-style education policies in an attempt to bring Wal-Mart’s business model to classrooms across the country.
With a collective $148 billion fortune, the Walton family is using their unfathomable wealth to exert outsized influence on school systems in cities across the country, often in communities where they neither reside nor do business. In Chicago, the Waltons gave $500,000 to support the process that resulted in the closure of nearly 50 public schools in underserved communities. Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton spent $2.25 million in 2012 alone to promote the charter and private school sectors in Georgia, Indiana and Washington–hundreds of miles from her current home state of Texas.
In California, the Walton Family Foundation cheered the recent attack on teachers’ due process rights in the Vegara v. California decision, which not only strips teachers of the ability to advocate for their students without fear of retribution, but also suggests that teachers’ needs are at odds with students’ interests. One family member also contributed $250,000 to defeat a ballot measure that would have instituted public universal pre-K education for the state.
The Walton family’s actions in the education realm are very familiar to those of us who know how the company does business. All too often, Wal-Mart fails to consult the communities it enters, drives out existing institutions and leaves those most vulnerable wondering how they’ll bridge the gap.
Wal-Mart is a highly profitable corporation, reporting between $16 billion and $17 billion a year in profits. Just six members of the Walton family–the majority owners of the company–have more wealth than 42 percent of American families combined. Yet the majority of Wal-Mart workers are paid less than $25,000 a year.
Wal-Mart’s low pay and erratic scheduling keep many of its employees and their families in poverty. Too many Wal-Mart moms and dads struggle to put food on the table and pay for doctor visits. And many Wal-Mart kids suffer because mom and dad don’t have reliable scheduling that gets them home in time for homework, dinner or bedtime reading.
We know that poverty is one of the biggest factors affecting student achievement. The Waltons, who claim to have joined the education policy debate in order to provide a world-class education for all of America’s children, not only actively work against our nation’s public education system, but also contribute to the economic insecurity that keeps so many kids from getting the education they need and deserve.
The Walton’s education agenda fails to address the fact that 1 out of every 2 children in our nation’s public schools lives in poverty. In fact, as the largest private employer in the world, Wal-Mart chooses to keep the majority of its 1.3 million U.S. workers in poverty despite huge profits.
If the Walton family is truly interested in helping every child achieve a high-quality education, they could begin by committing to pay their own workers a decent wage. Instead of spending their billions to wipe out our nation’s public school system, the Waltons could join the effort to reclaim the promise of public education in America–and ensure that we fulfill our collective obligation to help all children succeed by allowing their parents to succeed.
That’s the kind of appreciation teachers want. As Amber Rain Chandler, a teacher in New York, said to Wal-Mart: “Don’t discount the power of teachers.”