Now Jennifer Barnett Reed has picked up the story for the Arkansas Times where Doug Smith left off. In Reed's piece, we get a closer look at how the Walton millions are performing political miracles in Arkansas and elsewhere. Do read it all, but here are some choice clips:
For good or for ill, it's safe to say that the educational landscape in Arkansas would be drastically different today if Sam Walton hadn't been born in Bentonville.
The Waltons, individually and through their various family foundations, are by a large margin the largest donors to conservative education reform causes in the country. They've donated hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to educational causes nationwide, including the start-up funding that allowed the national private-school voucher movement to get off the ground more than a decade ago.
But they haven't neglected their home state. The two Walton family philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation and the Walton Charitable Support Foundation, gave at least $390 million to educational causes in Arkansas between 1998 and 2006, according to tax returns and the Walton Family Foundation's web site (2007 figures are not yet available publicly).
That doesn't count individual expenditures, such as the hundreds of thousands of dollars Jim Walton has spent to fund lobbying efforts on behalf of the conservative school reform causes originally championed by his late brother, John.
What's that much money bought? More charter schools, and a looser law to regulate them. Merit pay experiments in Little Rock. The University of Arkansas's Department of Education Reform and its nationally known chair, former Manhattan Institute scholar Jay Greene.
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Walton money also paid for half the cost of establishing the UA's Department of Education Reform and hiring Greene. The Manhattan Institute, where he was a fellow, is a conservative think-tank and a strong supporter of “reform” measures like charter schools and vouchers.
The department conducts research on education reform projects — including initiatives also funded by the Walton Family Foundation, a situation that, the researchers' claims of objectivity notwithstanding, has raised questions with some critics in the state's education community.
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n 2006, the Walton Family Foundation proposed a district-wide merit pay pilot program in Little Rock, which it would have both funded and paid to have evaluated by the Department of Education Reform. Little Rock teachers rejected the plan here; in Rogers, the school board ultimately rejected a different merit-pay proposal from the foundation that would have also included an evaluation by the education reform department.
While both those proposals were rejected, the Waltons had more success promoting merit pay at the state level.
Jim Walton is the primary funder of Arkansans for Education Reform and Arkansans for Better Schools, twin organizations whose sole employee is former State Board of Education member Luke Gordy and whose sole purpose is to lobby for causes like charter schools and merit pay at the state level.
In the 2007 legislative session, Gordy worked to get a bill passed that authorized school districts to use state tax money for merit-pay programs. The final bill was a hard-fought compromise that brought business interests together with the Arkansas Education Association to create rules that limited how the programs could work. Districts had to apply to the state Department of Education for approval; only one district and two individual schools had done so by the March 8 deadline.
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In 2007, charter schools were at the top of Gordy's agenda. He lobbied for a change in the state's charter school law to raise the number of charters allowed from 12 to 24, and to remove restrictions on how many charter schools could open in each congressional district.
One thing that's not on his agenda, Gordy said, is taxpayer-funded vouchers to send low-income students to private schools. It's been a major focus of Walton giving nationwide, but Gordy said he's had “zero” conversations with his bosses about vouchers in Arkansas, and doesn't think he will anytime soon.
“Anything's possible,” he said. “The conversation could be started, but it's going to be a long time before that gets any traction in Arkansas.”
It's hard to get a handle on just how much money the Waltons sprinkle around the legislature — campaign finance reports submitted to the Secretary of State's office aren't searchable by donor, and each legislator submits multiple reports during the course of each campaign.
One lawmaker who's benefited from Walton money, and who's been a reliable friend on their education priorities, is Steve Bryles, a Democrat from Blytheville.
Bryles got $4,000 from Walton enterprises during the 2007 campaign: $2,000 from Jim Walton, $1,000 from Arvest Bank's political action committee, and $1,000 from Wal-Mart. Bryles led the effort to loosen the charter school laws, and is supportive of other school choice issues, but said he'd feel the same with or without those donations.
“I look for allies — I don't care if they're left, right or in between,” he said. “If they can be supportive of what I've outlined to you, then I'm going to latch onto them.”
But state Sen. Jim Argue, outgoing chair of the Senate Education Committee, downplayed the Waltons' influence on education issues in the legislature — especially compared with the influence of the Supreme Court's Lake View decision on school financing.
“I don't think it was the Waltons,” he said. “We've had a tremendous six years in terms of school improvement, but it was all spawned by the court decision in 2002.”
Besides lobbying for friendlier charter school laws, the Waltons have provided crucial financial support through the Walton Family Foundation to charter schools in Arkansas. It provided about two-thirds of the initial $800,000 three-year pledge to start the Arkansas Charter School Resource Center, whose director, Caroline Proctor, helps would-be charter school administrators design their schools, put together their applications, and progress through the sometimes lengthy approval process before the state Board of Education. After the resource center opened, charter school applications jumped from one or two a year to more than a dozen.
The foundation also provides $10,000 planning grants to charter school applicants, and another $10,000 in start-up money to schools that are approved. Once they're up and running, schools can also apply for much larger grants. LISA Academy, for instance, has received more than $150,000 from the Walton Family Foundation; the Arkansas Virtual School, the Benton County School of the Arts and Haas Hall, a Farmington charter school that's faced serious financial problems, have all gotten $250,000. The foundation is also supporting the e-STEM charter schools, set to open in July in downtown Little Rock, although the amount hasn't been made public.
In all, the Walton Family Foundation gave about $1.7 million to proposed and existing charter schools between 1998 and 2006.
Proctor said the money is vital for charter schools — giving them necessary start-up funds, but not enough to operate without other outside support.
“The amount is just perfect,” she said. “No school is going to survive forever on it but it's enough to get somebody started.”
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