Sorry, Walmart: Charter Schools Won’t Fix Poverty

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 30th, 2015.
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Last week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and In the Public Interest released a highly critical report on the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education philanthropy, which ended with a call for increased transparency and accountability in the charter sector. The gist of the report is that the Walton Family Foundation—which has kick-started about one in four charters around the country—“relentlessly presses for rapid growth of privatized education options” and has opposed serious efforts to regulate and monitor fraud and abuse. While the foundation supports rapidly scaling up charter networks that have produced promising results, the AFT and In the Public Interest cite a 2013 Moody’s Investment Services report which found that dramatically expanding charter schools in poor urban areas weakens the ability of traditional schools to serve their students, forcing them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs to make ends meet.

A month earlier, Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), published its own report on the Walton Family Foundation’s impact, and found that although they have achieved meaningful results through their environmental philanthropy, “an overreliance on specific market-based vehicles” hinders their ability to create “sustainable and equitable” improvements in education. Philamplify also criticized the Walton Family Foundation for “insulating itself among like-minded peers rather than connecting with the broader field.”

While the Walton Family Foundation did not return my request for comment, Education Week reported that their spokesperson, Daphne Moore, defended their commitment to high-quality schools. Education Week also cites Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation—who argued that the foundation has long demonstrated a commitment to accountability and transparency.

This discussion is sure to continue over the coming months, but what was particularly striking was something in the Walton Family Foundation’s response to the Philamplify report—a statement that has been reiterated by the foundation many times over the past several years. Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 program director, said, “Education is the set of work we can support that will most directly end the cycle of poverty and change the trajectory of young people’s lives.”

The notion that education is needed to break the cycle of poverty is a popular mantra of the education reform movement. The problem is, it is simply not true at all. The most direct way to break the cycle of poverty is actually to give poor people more money, something that high-quality educations, even college degrees, do not in any way guarantee. So when it comes to the question of redistribution—an integral component to any comprehensive anti-poverty program—the political work of the Walton family deserves far greater scrutiny.

Waltons, Walmart, and Politics

The Walton family heirs own a majority of public shares in Walmart, the U.S.’s largest private employer, which easily makes them some of the richest people on earth. Today, the Walton family has more wealth than 49 million American families combined. The six Walton heirs together have a net worth of at least $148.8 billion.

The Walton family engages in quite a bit of political work outside of its environmental and education philanthropy—much of it to advance conservative legislative goals. In the 2014 electoral cycle, Walmart spent $2.4 million through its PAC and individual donations, and $12.5 million through lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Walmart was far and away the biggest big-box retail spender in the election cycle, and has been ranked among the top 100 political donors since 1989. Demos looked at the Walton family’s political contributions between 2000 and 2014 and found that their $7.3 million in campaign contributions heavily favored Republican candidates over Democrats.

Outside of political campaigns, Walmart employs an array of Washington, D.C., lobbyists to advocate on issues like labor, taxes, and trade. Up until May 2012, Walmart was a longtime member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works to promote an ideologically conservative agenda around the country. Moreover Walmart has given millions to the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Republican Governors Association, and other organizations that push right-wing policies.

Their animus towards union and labor is no secret, and Walmart has fought strengthening labor law in Washington, D.C., as well as supporting efforts to expand right-to-work laws in state legislatures. In addition, as veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reported for The Atlantic this month, Walmart “maintains a steady drumbeat of anti-union information at its more than 4,000 U.S. stores”—much of which is patently false.

Beyond their efforts to elect conservative candidates and promote right-wing causes, the Waltons also fight against efforts to promote a greater redistribution of wealth through taxation. According to Treasury Department estimates, closing just two estate tax loopholes that the Waltons use would raise more than $2 billion annually over the next decade—but they have long lobbied against any effort to do so. Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state organizations that seeks to promote progressive tax reform, found that Walmart and the Walton family benefit from an estimated $7.8 billion in annual tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies—much of which stems from the fact that so many of Walmart employees earn meager wages and are forced to rely on public assistance.

After years of worker organizing and public pressure, Walmart recently announced that it would raise its hourly wages to $9 an hour by April and $10 an hour by February 2016. While encouraging, such measures alone are unlikely to mitigate the economic hardship most Americans face—especially when, at this point, many cities are pushing for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Economic Inequality and Public Education

The evidence that shows impoverished kids are disadvantaged in school is well-documented—and yet many education reformers insist that despite this, we can still provide every child with a high-quality education so that everyone succeeds. We shouldn’t use poverty as “an excuse,” they say.

The idea that we can redesign education to be excellent and equitable without reducing poverty and economic inequality certainly sounds politically pleasant, but we know it’s just not true. That’s why the education agenda of the Walton Family Foundation has so many internal contradictions. The Waltons say they want to create more high-quality schools to help kids in poverty, but they back candidates who support eroding the already crumbling social safety net and fight against paying their fair share of taxes. And while the Waltons continue to advocate aggressively against unions, the Economic Policy Institute has found that the decline in unionization has mirrored the rise in inequality “to a remarkable extent.”

Not only does poverty hurt one’s chance for success in school, but growing levels of economic inequality also further exacerbate these issues—problems that the Walton heirs do not seem interested in addressing. Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago—though the academic performance of poor students has not declined during this time. He also found that before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students when it came to academic performance, but “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.” In other words, growing economic inequality has contributed to disparities in academic achievement across the board, even for those not living in poverty. Other researchers have found that the rich now have much greater access to extracurricular opportunities than the poor. In districts across the country, enrichment programs like art, music, journalism, and athletics are being cut—creating even greater divides between the haves and the have-nots in education.

If we want to reduce poverty and economic inequality—things we know hurt student achievement and life outcomes—then we have to address how the education aims of the Walton Family Foundation are incongruous with their political agenda elsewhere. Closing the achievement gap, as Demos analyst Matt Bruenig points out, will not even reduce poverty; it would merely change the distribution of it. In the education-reform world, unfortunately, grantees are unlikely to criticize foundations because they fear they will be blacklisted or de-funded. This makes sense, as there are incredible power imbalances in the philanthropic sector and money is scarce.

The Walton Family Foundation talks a lot about creating high-quality schools. If Walmart, with its billions of dollars in profits, created high-quality jobs with living wages and benefits, children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty and would perform far better in school. Relatedly, if the Waltons backed candidates who supported a more equitable distribution of wealth and stronger social-welfare policies, then children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty, and perform far better in school. It’s certainly true that every child deserves a high-quality education. How to get there, however, is not rocket science.

On International Women’s Day: Baltimore Marches

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on March 9th, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

When global corporations such as BP and Accenture become vaunted sponsors of International Women’s Day, it’s easy to worry that the holiday—first organized by early 20th-century socialists—has lost its radical roots. But for the 50 Baltimore citizens who convened on Sunday to celebrate, commemorate, and mobilize fellow women activists, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well.

The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organized the three-hour event, which included a march that began at the corner of Hillen and Fallsway and ended with a rally outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gathering at 3 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, the organizers were clear about their objectives for the day.

“We have to remain vigilant about reclaiming and remembering the black female victims of police brutality because black women and girls’ lives matter too,” said Lynae Pindell, a 23-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We have only framed [police violence] as a black male problem.” Pindell spoke of the need to “move beyond that sexist lens” which renders invisible the racial profiling, sexual harassment, strip searches, rape, and other acts of gender-based violence that women and girls are regularly subjected to. Reading off a list of black women and girls who have died at the hands of police—including Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, and Aiyana Jones—Pindell pointed out that all of these women received far less media attention than Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

Colleen Davidson, an activist with FIST, reminded the crowd that their International Women’s Day march was coinciding with the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The fight against racism, she stressed, is deeply intertwined with their battle against patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and police brutality. “More communities are mobilizing, and the struggle is growing,” Davidson said enthusiastically.

Before the march began, the crowd was encouraged to shout out names of women who are important to them. “Ella Baker! Mother Jones! Nina Simone! Coretta Scott King! Harriet Tubman! Leslie Feinberg! Billie Holiday! Sojourner Truth! Audre Lorde!”

When the diverse crowd finally began to march—with women leading in the front, and men instructed to hang in the back—activists lifted banners and bright green picket signs, chanting, “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

Jessye Grieve-Carlson, a sophomore at Goucher College, was there with fellow members of the Goucher Feminist Collective. She said she was looking to do more off-campus activism and engage with local organizers. Another marcher, Ellen Barfield, said she dreams of a time when there will be an International Men’s Day because that will mean that women will have gained power. Barfield, an army veteran and longtime peace activist, co-founded the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace, but notes that the group is largely male. “Even though they’re well-meaning for the most part,” she says, “they’re still pretty blinded by the patriarchy.”

When the group arrived outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center, standing beneath the tall barbed-wired fence, activists took turns making speeches, reading poems, and singing songs. Central to the speeches were calls for economic justice—specifically for better jobs with living wages, increased access to affordable housing, and an end to mass incarceration.

According to the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative, “Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City.”

“We are not just out here marching for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights,” said Sharon Black, a 65-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We are here for our real liberation.” Pointing her finger at the bleak-looking detention center, Black urged, “People don’t need to be locked behind bars and treated like animals. Our sisters deserve better.”

After the rally concluded, the activists left East Baltimore and relocated to the church hall of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, marching along with chants like, “No justice! No peace! No sexist police!”

Waiting for them in the church was a big buffet of chili, macaroni and cheese, salad, sandwiches, desserts, and other snacks prepared by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and IWW union members. Local activists, like Tawanda Jones—the sister of Tyrone West and a leader in Baltimore’s fight against police brutality—were recognized by the organizers and given awards. Other honorees included Palestinian activist Laila El-Haddad, Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sara Benjamin, and Tiffany Beroid, a leader pushing for Wal-Mart to grant pregnant workers their rights.

So what’s next for these women and men?

“We’re not looking to form a new organization, because a lot of us are already involved in so many groups,” Black told me. “But we want to help unite everyone, so that next year we’ll be more poised to take collective action.”

Black reiterated this sentiment when she addressed the crowd, suggesting that maybe everyone would consider reconvening quarterly, to strategize for more sophisticated city and statewide efforts. She also made a plug for the Fight for 15 movement’s next national day of action, which is scheduled for April 15. Though the Fight for 15 movement has not been as strong in Baltimore as it has been elsewhere, the organizers hope to at least plan a march in solidarity with the fast food strikers in other cities.

Tawanda Jones also encouraged everyone to come to Annapolis March 12, where the Maryland legislature will be considering several bills that address police accountability reform. “We can’t bring Tyrone back but we can stop another family from feeling the same,” said Jones. “That’s why we do what we do—justice for all victims of police brutality.”

Labor Reawakens

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 26, 2013.

This week, hundreds of Chicago workers organized a major labor strike, demanding a wage floor of $15 an hour and the right to unionize. Their protests come on the heels of the largest strike in the fast food industry’s history, which took place in December in New York City, and a nation-wide Walmart strike to protest what workers felt were unfair wages and treatment. Here in Baltimore, workers have also begun organizing around the idea of “fair development” — calling for higher wages and other benefits.

Chicago’s strike represents just how contagious this type of unrest has become. Led by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, in collaboration with other local worker groups and unions, they are leading the “Fight for 15” campaign to raise the minimum wage.

Who can blame them? Minimum wage in Chicago, at $8.25, is already $1 more than the federal requirement. Yet if one works 40 hours a week, for 52 weeks a year, the resulting salary is $17,160 before taxes, well below the poverty level for a family of three. In November, the Census Bureau announced that more than 16 percent of the population lived in poverty, including almost 20 percent of American children. This figure had risen from 14.3 percent in 2009 and was at its highest level since 1993.

The National Employment Law Project found last year that low-wage positions made up just 21 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, but they accounted for 58 percent of jobs “recovered.” Additionally, researchers found that food service, retail and employment services represented 43 percent of employment growth over the past two years.

The workers organizing strikes and protests face tough odds, as unionism is widely perceived to be on the wane, even in the public sector. But something has to give. A mere 88,000 jobs were created in March, and labor-force participation is at its lowest since 1979, as millions have decided that the work world offers insufficient opportunities. If we can’t figure out a way to incentivize stable employment through livable wages, then we could be in for years of economic stagnation or worse.

The protesting workers doubtless have decided they need to take matters into their own hands because Washington has done little to help.

To be sure, President Barack Obama has talked extensively about the need to revive the middle class and about the ill effects of a system in which the rich get richer and the rest fall behind. He has endorsed increasing the minimum wage and included a proposal to do so in his budget package.

But he has managed to accomplish little. Even talking about the problem inevitably leads to Republican cries of “class warfare” that drown out and end the conversation. But it’s a conversation we need to have. Real annual median household income has dropped to $45,018, from $51,144 in 2010. Virtually all the gains from the economic recovery continue to go to the richest people in the United States.

The increasing polarization of our wealth is stunting economic growth, and that’s bad for the poor and rich alike. But it is not inevitable. We’re glad to see workers in Baltimore, New York, Chicago and elsewhere speak up and demand change. Washington needs to brave up and confront this too. An increase in the federal minimum wage won’t solve the problem, but it would surely be a step in the right direction.