Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Follow LeftTurn:

Special Offer from PM Press

Now more than ever there is a vital need for radical ideas. In the four years since its founding - and on a mere shoestring - PM Press has risen to the formidable challenge of publishing and distributing knowledge and entertainment for the struggles ahead. With over 200 releases to date, they have published an impressive and stimulating array of literature, art, music, politics, and culture.

PM Press is offering readers of Left Turn a 10% discount on every purchase. In addition, they'll donate 10% of each purchase back to Left Turn to support the crucial voices of independent journalism. Simply enter the coupon code: Left Turn when shopping online or mention it when ordering by phone or email.

Click here for their online catalog.

Corporate Puppeteers: A Look at Who’s Behind the Charter School Movement

Basav Sen
Date Published: 
October 01, 2006
    Often billed as a grassroots education reform campaign, a closer look proves that the charter school movement is anything but. Basav Sen presents a case study of two charter school operators in Washington, DC and one of their primary funders: the Walton Family Foundation. The picture that emerges is a complex web of big corporations and right-wing think tanks pushing their agenda to privatize the public school system.

In analyzing the proliferation of charter schools, both in Washington, DC and nationwide, it is critical that we identify the forces that are providing political and financial support. What motivates these charter school backers, and what do they intend to get out of their support? There is a web of corporate-backed foundations that provide generous funding to specific charter schools as well as to think tanks and advocacy organizations dedicated to promoting charter schools.

Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is a nationwide chain of charter schools with three schools Washington, DC. SEED is a residential charter school with one campus in DC and plans for a second. One thing these two schools have in common is funding from the Walton Family Foundation. In 2003 alone, the Walton Family Foundation gave $3 million to KIPP schools.

This private foundation is controlled by the heirs of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart. The Waltons are the richest family in the world, with a combined fortune of over $90 billion. The five surviving Waltons are among the 10 richest people in the US. They own 40% of the shares of Wal-Mart—an unusually high percentage for the founders of a company publicly traded on the stock market.

Obedient workforce

Wal-Mart has earned well-deserved notoriety for their poverty-level wages, race and gender discrimination, and anti-union practices (including using illegal intimidation and harassment to break up union organizing drives.) Additionally, Wal-Mart is known for driving locally-owned retail stores out of business, contributing to sprawl and environmental destruction, and a host of other egregious violations of workers’ rights and community and environmental standards.

It is instructive to ask, why do the Waltons support charter schools such as KIPP and SEED? It is unlikely that the owners of such a ruthless enterprise as Wal-Mart want to support these schools out of purely charitable motives.
A major clue emerges when we compare the KIPP educational model with Wal-Mart’s cult-like work culture. KIPP emphasizes rote learning, blind obedience, and repetition of meaningless cheers. At Wal-Mart, employees are taught company cheers to feel good about working low-wage, dead-end jobs. When you combine this with the fact that KIPP schools are disproportionately located in, and specifically target, low-income children of color, it becomes clear that the role of educational institutions such as KIPP is to educate the next generation of obedient Wal-Mart workers.

By stamping all creative and critical thinking out of young people and teaching them to blindly follow orders, KIPP schools turn out the ideal Wal-Mart worker. In an article, Liza Featherstone recounted her visit to a KIPP school in New York, where she watched second graders chant slogans they had memorized. The principal told her proudly: “We are getting them ready for business.”

Among retail corporations hungry for low-wage, docile workers, Wal-Mart is not the only one with its fingers in the charter school business. The Pisces Foundation, controlled by The Gap founder Donald Fisher, gave $45 million to KIPP schools nationwide over the last several years.


Increasingly, we are living in a world where social services that were once run publicly are privatized. Washington, DC hasn’t had a public hospital since DC General closed, a trend replicated in cities across the US. Recently, cities like Stockton, New Orleans, and Atlanta have all attempted to privatize their water systems, while other cities have privatized trash and recycling collection. For-profit private prisons are a growing trend. Can the privatization of public schools be far behind? The corporate strategy consists of setting up “facts on the ground”—private entities that substitute for public schools—and using these entities to undermine funding for the public schools. This deepens the crisis in public education, rendering the public schools ineffective, and serves the eventual goal of shutting them down in order to replace them with schools run by the private sector.

Another motive behind corporate funding of charter schools involves creating a future market. Privatization is a particularly plausible long-term motive for a company like Wal-Mart, which is on a gradual-but-continuous drive to control the entire consumer service sector. Wal-Mart first diversified from general merchandise retail to groceries, then added pharmacies, gas stations, and clinics to their stores, and has even submitted an application to the Federal Trade Commission to start a bank. The possibility of our education being controlled by a giant chain retail store is ominous. As if that weren’t bad enough, Wal-Mart also sells soda, junk food, televisions, game software, and a host of other unhealthy products that can be marketed to children. By controlling education, a retailer like Wal-Mart could train not just a future generation of workers, but also a future generation of customers.

Lest this sound like a far-fetched conspiracy theory, here are a few facts that make the profit motives behind the attack on public schools clear. Here is a quote from a brochure sent by Wall Street investment advisers Lehman Brothers to their clients: “We've taken over the health care system; we've taken over the prison system; our next big target is the education system. We will privatize it and make a lot of money.” The misleadingly-named Reason Foundation, a right-wing think tank, writes on their website about how “better-performing” charter schools “are attracting big money from investors to open more schools,” and how “private investors will reward achievement.”
Think about this for a moment: how do investors define “performance” and “achievement?” They are defined as that which makes money. Is this always what’s best for education, and for students? There is a growing ideology that says “yes,” and this is the ideology behind charter schools. This is the reason why corporations such as AOL, The Gap, and Wal-Mart are all in the charter school business.


The think tanks that promote charter schools as a “solution” for educational problems are part of the world of multinational corporate capital and pro-privatization “free market” ideology. A particularly influential policy think tank in Washington, DC, is the Federal City Council, an unelected, unaccountable municipal shadow-government that wields an enormous amount of power and clout. The exclusive nature of the FCC is borne out by its stated membership criteria: “Membership on the Federal City Council is limited to those top business, professional, and civic leaders who have evidenced a concern for the Nation’s Capital, who desire to work through the Council to improve it, and who are in a financial position to help support the Council’s operations.” In its public pronouncements, the FCC soft-pedals its secretiveness to make it sound like a virtue. For example, it describes itself as “working without seeking publicity” and states that there is need for an “organization of civic leaders working quietly to help public officials get the job done.”

The Federal City Council is a major behind-the scenes player in promoting charter schools in Washington, DC. The Council takes credit for having “spearheaded the business community’s support for public charter schools,” and helped start the business-funded Public Charter School Resource Center. Interestingly, the FCC received funding from the Walton Family Foundation in 1998 and 2000, to the tune of more than $300,000.

Two of the members of the FCC are worth particular attention. One is Joseph E. Robert, Jr., founder and chairman of a nonprofit organization called Fight for Children, that played a leading role in establishing the DC Public Charter School Association in 2004. Fight for Children claims that their mission is “increasing the number of urban youth who are prepared for post secondary education and career opportunities.” A closer look at founder Robert’s various other affiliations tells a different story.

Robert is founder, chairman, and CEO of a multinational real estate development company, and serves on the boards of the Real Estate Roundtable, an industry organization. The Real Estate Roundtable lobbies Congress in favor of policies that make its rich members—major real estate developers—richer. (For example, it advocates reducing capital gains taxes and eliminating estate taxes.) Robert is also a member of the World Economic Forum: an elite, secretive, and unaccountable group of top government officials and business leaders that gathers to discuss global economic policy in the resort of Davos, Switzerland. Additionally, Robert is on the board of the misleadingly-named Citizens for a Sound Economy, whose self-proclaimed mission is “to fight for less government, lower taxes, and less regulation.” Enough said.

World Bank & IMF

Furthermore, Robert is also on the board of the Bretton Woods Committee, which describes itself as: "a bipartisan group of distinguished citizens dedicated to increasing understanding of the vital role the international financial institutions play in promoting growth and stability for the US and global economy.” Space does not permit going into detail here, but the international financial institutions—the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and their regional counterparts—promote policies of privatization and deregulation worldwide. These include the controversial, now-discontinued policy of requiring user fees for public schools, which was responsible for forcing large numbers of poor children, especially girls, to drop out of school in Africa. It is fair to ask, if Mr. Robert is so keen to “fight for children,” why does he associate with the World Bank and IMF?

One little-known fact about the IMF, World Bank, and their regional counterpart in the Americas, the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), is that they own $1.4 billion in prime downtown Washington DC real estate. Though these institutions earn $4 billion in annual profits, they do not pay a dime in taxes to the city, contributing in no small measure to the budgetary constraints under which the District has to function. The Fifty Years is Enough Network estimates that, if these three institutions paid property and corporate profit taxes like any other business, they would pay the District more than $1 billion annually, a sum of money that would go a long way towards addressing the pressing needs of city residents, including low-income children. Somehow, this “fighter for children” is unconcerned about the international financial institutions’ free ride at the expense of Washington, DC’s children.

The World Bank is connected to school privatization in Washington DC in an even more direct manner. A document from the Venture Philanthropy Partners (whom I scrutinize later in this article) reveals that the World Bank, the Fannie Mae Foundation and the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers have set up a Public Education Partnership Fund to implement “reform” in DC Public Schools and to “develop charter school capacity.” Decades of experience worldwide have shown that when the World Bank “reforms” anything, usually it means that people lose their jobs, their access to public services, or their self-determination.

To complete the circle, Fight for Children received funding from the Walton Family Foundation from 2001 through 2004, including $1.6 million in 2004 alone. Fight for Children is also funded by major corporations, trade associations, and wealthy individuals, such as Anheuser Busch (the makers of Budweiser), Bank of America, Citigroup, The Gap’s Donald Fisher, Lehman Brothers, Lockheed Martin, the Marriott Foundation, Microsoft, Exxon Mobil, the New York Times, Northwest Airlines, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Verizon, Wachovia, and the Washington Post. Not exactly grassroots!

Another member of the Federal City Council who merits a closer look is Michael P. Kimsey. Kimsey is Executive Director of the Kimsey Foundation, member of the board of DC KIPP Key Academy, and the son of James Kimsey, the founder of AOL. The Kimsey Foundation lists both Fight for Children and the Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) as its “partners.”

VPP, in turn, is an entity worth focusing on. It is a major funder of both the Friendship Public Charter School and the See Forever Foundation (parent organization of the Maya Angelou Charter School). To illustrate the incestuous nature of the relationships between these players, note that Joseph Roberts of Fight for Children and James Kimsey (the founder of AOL and father of Michael Kimsey) are both founders of VPP. The core premise of VPP’s work is highly insidious. They practice “venture philanthropy,” a process whereby wealthy donors donate not merely funds to nonprofit organizations, but exert considerable influence on their priorities and strategic direction, effectively making them far more accountable to their wealthy donors than to their grassroots base. Their charity is thus another form of privatization, taking control out of the hands of communities and handing it to a small elite.

Overall, a picture emerges of a complex web of big corporations and powerful business and political players pushing an agenda to privatize the public school system via both direct donations to charter school operators and through funding and associating with right-wing think tanks—all while maintaining a facade of caring for low-income children. Underlying their activities is an ideology of supremacy of the “free” market over all other forms of human organization.


Basav Sen is an activist and freelance writer based in Washington, DC, and a member of the Save Our Schools Coalition. He has is also a member of Mobilization for Global Justice, and has been involved for more than a decade in struggles against corporate globalization and for immigrants' rights and housing justice.