March 29, 2024

Maurice Cunningham: Banned in Boston: Coverage of Walton Family Spending on K-12 Interest Groups

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Dark money expert Maurice Cunningham looks at some of the money that the Walton Family has spent to promote school privatization in just one state, and how little has been reported about it.

So far as I can tell, in a period in which the Waltons poured more than $10,000,000 into K-12 interest groups in Massachusetts, no Boston Globe staffer has ever reported that fact.”

In Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, Professor Rob Reich argues that “Big philanthropy is often an exercise of power, the conversion of private assets into public influence. And it is a form of power that is largely unaccountable, often perpetual, and lavishly tax-advantaged.” That describes the Walton Family Foundation’s (WFF) spending to influence Massachusetts K-12 education policy, and the lack of accountability from Boston’s major media outlets.

The Walton Family Foundation is the philanthropic organ through which the family funds education interest groups. The Waltons are America’s wealthiest family and reside (mostly) in Arkansas, not Massachusetts. According to its publicly available Form 990 tax return for 2022, WFF accepted $543,804,664 in contributions. Those contributions are tax deductible. Count in other categories of income and WFF total revenue for 2022 was $796,378,256. Contributions, gifts, and grants totaled $545,204,912.

The tables below represent WFF spending on interest groups that try to influence Massachusetts K-12 policy. Some are created by WFF—Massachusetts Parents United, National Parents Union—others were not created by WFF but are sustained by Walton dollars.

Skip down to the table if you like, I need to do some preliminaries, from a prior post:

First, a little political science. In Following the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public Schools, Sarah Reckhow argues that major funders (e.g., Gates, Broad, Waltons) have two expectations before committing dollars to a locale: 1. Strong mayoral or state control (hello, receivership vs. elected school committee); and 2. “a strong local nonprofit advocacy sector and a sizable pool of highly educated individuals.”[1] Or she asks “Why Boston but not Detroit?” The need is greater in Detroit but Boston has centralized power in the mayor’s office with no elected school committee, and a deep pocketed philanthropic sector.

Second, research by Tufts’ Jeffrey M. Berry and Duke’s Kristen A. Goff shows that in certain circumstances foundations and wealthy donors act as interest groups. They are investing with nonprofit advocacy organizations “seeking to influence politics and the policy process.”[2] That’s what the Waltons and Barr are doing; they’re interest groups.

So let’s see what the WFF has invested in Massachusetts school privatization interest groups since 2017. For details of year-by-year donations from 2017-2021, see my post on the Walton Political Team 2021.

WFF Donee 2017-2021 2022 2017-2022
Latinos for Education $1,728,958 $0 $1,728,958
Latina Circle $250,000 $0 $250,000
Massachusetts Parents United $2,266,000 $0 $2,266,000
Pioneer Institute $325,000 $0 $325,000
Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education $1,250,000 $525,000 $1,775,000
Massachusetts Charter Public School Assoc. $3,074,500 $500,000 $3,574,500
Total $8,894,458 $1,025,000 $9,919,458

Now let’s turn to what WFF has invested in multi-state organizations that operate in Massachusetts. (Multi-state not national; DFER operates in eight states and has little going on in several; NPU is a shell, etc).

WFF Donee 2017-2021 2022 2017-2022
National Parents Union $1,250,000 $950,000 $2,200,000
Educators for Excellence $5,245,000 $500,000 $5,745,000
Education Reform Now Inc (DFER) $13,456,775 $3,772,250 $17,229,025
Teach for America $74,478,568 $28,500,000 $102,978,568
Total $94,430,343 $33,722,250 $128,152,593

Read the full post for more details–and just how much the Globe hasn’t reported.

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