Public schools, private agendas: Parent Revolution

At first glance, it is one of the nation’s hottest new education-reform movements, a seemingly populist crusade to empower poor parents and fix failing public schools. But a closer examination reveals that the “parent-trigger” movement is being heavily financed by the conservative Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s largest and most strident anti-union organizations, a Frying Pan News investigation has shown. Since 2009, the foundation has poured more than $6.3 million into Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles advocacy group that is in the forefront of the parent-trigger campaign in California and the nation. Its heavy reliance on Walton money, critics say, raises questions about the independence of Parent Revolution and the intentions of the Walton Family Foundation. While Parent Revolution identifies the Walton Family Foundation as one of several donors on its Web site, the full extent of contributions from the Walton foundation and other donors hasn’t been publicly known until now. Information supplied to Frying Pan News by Parent Revolution and publicly available tax records show that a total of 18 separate foundations have given more than $14.8 million to the group since its founding in 2009. Other multimillion dollar contributors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($1.6 million); the Laura and John Arnold Foundation ($1.5 million); the Wasserman Foundation ($1.5 million); the Broad Foundation ($1.45 million) and the Emerson Collective Education Fund ($1.2 million), founded by Laurence Powell Jobs, the widow of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. But the Walton Family Foundation is by far Parent Revolution’s largest benefactor, contributing 43 percent of the $14.9 million total. “Why is all this money coming in?” asks John Rogers, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, who has studied the parent-trigger movement. “It doesn’t seem to be about educational improvements. … It seems to be about creating greater pressure to challenge teachers’ unions rather than an authentic way to improve education opportunities.” The parent-trigger law diminishes the influence of teachers’ unions and it allows public schools to be turned into nonunion charters. The Walton Family Foundation, which is run by the family of Walmart founder Sam Walton, is one of the nation’s largest private donors to charter schools. The foundation has also used its money and clout to fund conservative research groups (including the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation) whose analysts have then defended Walmart and its anti-union policies on newspaper opinion pages and in testimony to government committees. In education, it is a strong proponent of the expansion of charter schools, school voucher programs and other efforts to privatize public education. It also gives money to the influential trade publication Education Week to write about parent empowerment issues. Another large donor to Parent Revolution, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation of Houston, Texas, supports charter schools and also has funded conservative efforts to overhaul and limit pensions in California, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch. John Arnold is a billionaire former Enron trader who also founded a successful hedge fund. The Broad Foundation, founded by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, and the Gates Foundation, also are big backers of charter schools and other market-driven education reforms, though their overall policies are far less conservative than the Walton Family Foundation. “Everything the Walton foundation has done over the years is to support privatization and anti-union policies,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. “They want privatization and Parent Revolution promotes their goals.”


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"Where they say no child left behind they need to turn that around and say no teacher left behind, because we are left behind," said Grice-Walker. The Havana Elementary School educator has been teaching in Gadsden County for 15 years. She said the state needs to do a better job taking care of teachers. She added Gadsden County educators haven't had a raise in the last seven years. "If we have to keep adding into our own retirement and their taking out money already for our retirement, it seems like they are double dipping," said Grice-Walker. House leaders passed a bill that completely closes the pension plan to new enrollees in 2014. But the Senate’s plan would still give those teachers an option between the pension and investment plan. But Andy Ford, Florida Education Association president, said they oppose "any change" to the current plan. "We don't see a need to change, right now the system is operating fine, it’s at 87 percent funded which is very good for a retirement plan so the state is really trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist," said Ford. Like Ford, Grice-Walker is concerned about what will happen to the kids. "Our students will not have the adequate means of an education because we'll have less teachers and if we don't have teachers to teach your children then they aren't going to get the quality of education that they should receive," said Grice-Walker.


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