Private Money and Public Schools

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Last December 3, the California Fair Political Practices Commission recommended fining Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a Democrat, $37,500 for improperly reporting donations to his multiple nonprofit groups. The political watchdog agency agreed to this penalty at a Dec. 13 meeting. The donations included a total of $500,000 between Jan. 19, 2012, and June 5, 2012, from the Walton Family Foundation to Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit school reform group that Johnson founded in 2009 with a commitment of $500,000 from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

The money trail, however, goes beyond Mayor Johnson’s untimely reporting of donations to his nonprofits. His local education reform efforts illustrate a broader national trend: corporate funding of education reform via nonprofits to alter public schools. In an era of a growing income gap between corporate America and the general public—the one percent and 99 percent, in the words of the Occupy Wall Street movement—the power of corporate-funded philanthropy to shape public policy has become part of the social landscape. In the case of school reform, breaking public-sector unions is high on this elite agenda. Consider the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nonunion behemoth based in Bentonville, Ark. This family had a net worth of $115.5 billion in 2012, according to the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America. Its foundation “invested” close to $160 million in K-12 education reform across the U.S. in 2011:

Sam Starks of Sacramento is director of MLK 365, which calls itself “a non-profit organization (movement) that advances the values of Martin Luther King Jr. as a strategy to empower ordinary people to transform the world around them.” Asked for his view of Walton Foundation donations to reform public schools, Starks replied, “I can’t be mad with someone who wants to improve the quality of education. If the Waltons have money to give to inspire kids, engage parents, activate communities, and support and train teachers for professional development, I will take it. There is a role for industry that does not take away from public schools.”

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