The Walmarting of the American Education System

by Mickey Huff
Published: Last Updated on

On January 15, 2016, Walmart publicized a plan to close 269 stores. This was mostly an inconsequential story for the corporate media; although behind the scenes this choice was much more than a meek corporate decision. While the news of Walmart store closings disseminated more through local media nationwide, where the store closings received far more coverage given the real human and economic consequences of the store closings, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF), stated that it would be “doubling down” on its investments in school choice with a $1billion plan to support expanding the charter school sector and other choice initiatives over the next five years. That major announcement, coupled with the store closings, received almost no attention from the corporate news media.

The quickly multiplying number of charter schools in the previous decade comes ancillary to the millions the Walton’s have already spent on charter schools. According to the WFF strategic plan published in 2015, “1 in 4 charters nationally have received WFF startup funds.” The reasoning behind this claim is undisclosed besides its basic philanthropic purpose. Although it’s been well documented that original Walmart founder Sam Walton was not very fond of American public schools and in the 1990’s unsuccessfully tried to privatize American schools. While the family foundation funding charter schools through charity seems harmless, the organization’s true interest lies in the voucher programs, an apparatus for school privatization through which public tax dollars can be diverted to private institutions.

In Business Week of February 2000, John Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, was renowned as “a leading advocate for using ‘consumer choice’ to reform America’s schools.” Of course, this reform was not to be done through the public sector, but rather through the use of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers. The family apparently began working on charter schools not out of goodwill per se, but as a compromise after it became clear that privatization of public education was a very controversial idea.

Among the many critics of WFF’s foray into education, one of the more prominent explanations of the Walton family plans resulting effects comes from education historian Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, evaluates whether there is any “commonality between the Walmart business philosophy and the Walton funding of school choice.” Essentially, Ravitch is likening the competition that charters pose to public schools to the competition that Walmart stores present to locally owned stores. “Just as Walmart forces stores that can’t match their prices to shut their doors, so charters — which bleed students, and their funding, from traditional schools — cause local schools to close down.”


Jeff Bryant, “How the Cutthroat Walmart Business Model Is Reshaping American Public Education.” Alternet, March 13, 2016,

Student Researcher: Marc Wilhelm (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)