The Great Big Lovin’ Walheart

The Walton family hearts America’s poor kids. Their parents? Not so much.

walheartWhen we last paid a call on our good friends the Waltons, we found them in a fine, beneficent fettle indeed. Armed with Walmart profits equivalent to the wealth of the bottom 42% of American families combined, the Waltons felt moved to wrap their arms around the nation’s burgeoning population of low-income children and hug them into college readiness and 21st century success. And I’ve got great, heartwarming news, reader. As this New York Times feature reveals, the Waltons’ great big lovin’ Walheart beats stronger than ever—and there is nary an education reform group nor a charter school that is not ententacled in the family’s tender embrace.

hugsA family affair  
Just how warm is that embrace? According to the New York Times, the Walton Family Foundation has hugged its extended family members in the education reform movement to the tune of $1 billion since 2000, including $163 million last year alone. Among the warmest recipients of Walton warmth in 2013: lovers of achievement at 50CAN ($4.3 million), of excellence at KIPP ($8.8 million) and even more excellence at Teach for America ($15.5 million). And how the Walheart beats for high-performing seats; $335 million of the family’s love has gone to start up fresh new charter schools, making it the country’s single most generous lover of such schools.

Tough love 
I will stop briefly for a moment, reader, to allow you to reach for a fresh hanky (or to freshen your drink), such is the heart-warming nature of this particular tale. Alas, here is where our story takes a detour into darker, less feel-good fare. You see, if the Walheart throbs with love for low-income kids, it beats somewhat less enthusiastically for their low-income parents, especially those who are low-income by virtue of working at Walmart. Take Washington, DC, for example, where nearly every aspect of the city’s choice-infused school system comes stamped with a *W.* One choice that’s not on offer in the District: living wage jobs at big-box stores including Walmart. Or consider Walmart’s response after workers at stores across the country walked off the job to protest crap wages and benefits and a work culture that might best be described as tough love. (Hint: Walmart didn’t hug the workers.) Of course, even the hardest hearts have a way of thawing come holiday time, which is why this Ohio Walmart held a Thanksgiving food drive for its own employees.

hnk3x-tell-tale-heart-1-jpgThe Tell Tale Heart (and a quick Common Core math problem)
That sound you hear in the background, reader, is an organ—albeit not one of the ventricular variety. I’m talking old school, Vincent Price-style organ music of the kind that plays just before some dark and dirty business is carried out. In other words, this is where we pause to contemplate a heart-wrenching paradox: how is it possible that the great big lovin’ Walheart pounds for the sake of preparing low-income kids for college and career readiness in the future even as Walmart itself presides over a transformation of the workplace into one great big, underpaid, precarious, rights-free hell? Common Core math problem: Drawing on the informational text above, construct a Venn diagram that best demonstrates the overlap between the 1.4 million, mostly low-wage Walmart employees and the 2 million students who are being made college and career ready with the aid of Walmart profits. Don’t forget to provide a written explanation of how you reached your conclusion. 

walmartpicThe schools that Walbucks builds
While the Waltons’ loving tentacles encircle a choice of charters, they hug hardest the *No Excuses* academies that are so often profiled on this page. Known for long days, long years, strict discipline and stripped down, test-prep academics focused almost exclusively on English and math, the schools so beloved by the Waltons specialize in a particular kind of acculturation that might best be described as learning how to work for the man. Students attending these schools receive training in such invaluable 21st century skills as showing up on time, making sure one’s uniform shirt is always tucked in and learning that you can only go to the bathroom when the boss says its OK and go home when s/he unlocks the doors.

Strive 4 excellence
To spend even a little time in *No Excuses* land is to quickly realize that, whatever else the Waltons are training a growing number of low-income students to do, *creative disruption* isn’t it. In fact, in a last happy bit of happenstance, it just happens that *strive for excellence,* the credo of so many Walton-funded charters, is also a core belief of Walmart, Inc. Which is great, because at least some the graduates of these schools will be college and career ready enough to be management material at Walmart. As for the rest, if they’re lucky, there will be an associate badge with their name on it. Or perhaps by then Walmart will have introduced another name for its army of employees: scholars.

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  1. Jennifer, I’m a new reader of your blog and absolutely LOVE it. Thanks for all your hard and good work.

    I checked out the link in the story to the NY Times article that described Walmart’s illegal retaliation against striking and protesting workers. I was curious if the legal protections described in the article also cover teachers. Being a teacher, it would be good to know that we are afforded these protections. Specifically, would I be legally protected from retaliation if I publicly objected to school testing practices?

    1. Thanks for the love! I’d echo what Johnny Bravo said: whatever action you take needs to be done with, not just your fellow teachers and your union, but with parents, community groups, etc. I just returned from Chicago where I met teachers at two schools that opted out of a recent test. They were successful because they formed a partnership with parents. I’ll hook you up with one of the teachers who was involved as I bet she’ll have great advice for you. And let me know if you ever have something you want me to write about (or have an idea for a post of your own). Jennifer

  2. JD, what state do you teach in? If you’re in a state with a strong union behind you (and a good, solid contract protecting you), it’s best to do that kind of protesting in unison with your fellow teachers. If you’re in a weak or “functionally non-existentent” union situation (like I am), you can probably expect retaliation for doing anything to interrupt the steady flow of Kool Aid. They might not retaliate against you (officially) for speaking your mind, but you might suddenly find yourself facing an “unprofessional conduct” accusation for a situation that would never be leveled against a Kool-Aid-drinker.

  3. The long con is so painfully obvious here. Glenn Beck couldn’t have connected the let’s-fund-the-sit-up-straight-schools-so-they-graduate-kids-with-limitive-cognitive-autonomy-and-are-more-likely-to-apply-for-and-happily-take-our-minimum-wage-benefitless-jobs-and-work-dociley dots any better.

    But what was really infuriating was when the suits actually showed up at school–I worked at KIPP school for a few years–to ensure math-English-sit-up-striaght-Gradgrindian compliance. Man, oh, man. I had to *actually pretend* that my Creative Writing class was a non-artsy Numerical Literacy remediation room! Ditto the drama teacher, who along with the orchestra class converted their classrooms into Cashregister I and Applied Stocking lessons JUST in time for the quarterly visit from Shadowy Corporate Lackies from KIPP:Walmart HQ.

    What was harder was disguising things like socratic seminars on US trade policy, the War & Peace elective room (typically covered floor to ceiling in WAY verboten Che, Zapatista, and Chiapas iconography), the joint Dance and Art III exposé in the gym, the restorative justice initiative, and the variety of totally student-run community events initiated by the kids in Leadership class. When all else failed, we could just have kids stop moving or speaking and pretend they were in detention wherever they were. That got knowing nods of approbation from the suits.

    Anyway, this little note is in solidarity to all of the KIPP teachers out there who have taken their critical thinking/arts/democracy education underground because of the man and his, you know, tentacles. Stay strong, y’all.

  4. Your creative writing class sounds like it was amazing, Ross. And I hope you’ll tell me more about it when we meet for coffee (or a beverage of the carbonated variety!) I have very mixed feelings about KIPP, but its not schools like yours that I’m referring to in my post. As you probably know, KIPP’s expansion has slowed dramatically in recent years. KIPP has strict quality controls and the expense of it’s model makes it very difficult to replicate on any kind of meaningful scale. That’s why the future of urban education belongs to the Rocketships: cut-rate test prep built around blended learning that requires far fewer teachers. (There is no creative writing at Rocketship. Or art. Or music). As for my economic analysis, no single company has done more to eviscerate the middle class than Walmart. So I find it a little hard to praise the Waltons’ generous offering to escort low-income kids into the middle class, which, thanks largely to the company that has so enriched them, no longer exists. I like your use of *long con,* though. I think I’ll use it in a future post 🙂

  5. Thanks for your response, Jennifer. As it happens, I am going to a meeting that was basically forced by a parent group that is questioning the absurd amount of testing by our county. The testing guru for our county will no doubt consume all the allotted time with a wordy and opaque account of why we need to test ad nauseum, but at least I can support the parents who are trying to reform our testing practices. Since I need my job, that’s about all I’ll be able to do.

    Thank you also for inviting my continued input into this wonderful blog. I may just take you up on it.

  6. That a Wal-heart had to hold a food drive FOR THEIR OWN EMPLOYEES is unbelievable. It has such a “let them eat cake” ring to it. It’s like something out of the Onion.

    I wonder if, at the food drive, suits from Wal-heart’s Corporate Headquarters made a “generous” donation of 12 cans of green beans or something. For the children.

    And now, Walmart Education.

    This is truly why boxes of wine were invented.

  7. One thing that all the groups favored with Walton family largess have in common is a condescending attitude towards the people they seek to help. In the past I have called it a colonial mentality. Others could identify it as a replication of the plantation ethic. Walton wantsd to help “raise those children up” through harsh discipline practices, visiting missionaries (i.e. Teach for America unqualified teachers) and curriculum standards aimed at creating a compliant employee base.

    I wonder what the impact on education would be if Walmart just skipped the philanthropy and paid their workers a living wage?

  8. Economics 101 teaches us that without slave labor in places like Wal-Mart, corporate America’s vast pool of disposable Human Resources can’t possibly afford to buy anything. Are you trying to snatch food from the mouths of hard working executives? That’s un-American!!

    The Elephant has spoken.

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