School Beat: Yes to Public Schools, No to Wal-Mart!

by Lisa Schiff on July 7, 2005

San Franciscans have yet to be graced by a conveniently located Wal-Mart store, but that shouldn’t stop us from worrying about the practices of this super-sized company. Not only is Wal-Mart continually trying to maximize its profits by avoiding decent wage and benefits packages, the Walton family, which owns Wal-Mart, has been going after our public schools too. Someone’s got to stop these folks, and it’s going to be all of us.

Wal-Mart is perhaps the worst of the big-box stores, relying on tax-breaks, free land, cheap financing, and of course, exploitive labor practices, both domestically and internationally, to make it look like our shopping carts contain bargains. All of these strategies add up to just one thing-a clever shell game that transfers the cost of doing business to the rest of us non-millionaires.

This cost is born directly by employees and laborers who get paid low-wages and often work under discriminatory conditions. Those direct costs also get translated into indirect costs carried by the public in general in the form of health-care assistance to Wal-Mart employees. According to those exposing Wal-Mart’s practices, California alone spends $32 million a year on health care for Wal-Mart workers. ( Ignoring the obvious answer of single-payer health insurance for the moment, public dollars that go towards making up for Wal-Mart’s greediness mean fewer dollars available for other social services, such as education. A slice of that $32 million would have been quite helpful during this latest round of budget cuts our own school district had to undergo.

Making the connection between the fight for strong public schools and decent working conditions, the National Education Association (NEA) has endorsed a national campaign launched by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union called “Wake-Up Wal-Mart!”. The goal of the campaign is to change Wal-Mart’s practices by exposing the negative impact the store has on employees, the rest of us, and indeed the world. As the NEA states on its website:

“Wal-Mart’s goals are fundamentally opposed to what NEA members are working to do – improving public schools, enhancing the compensation and dignity of work, restructuring and enhancing the federal role in education, enhancing the influence of the minority community, and closing the achievement gaps.” (

One of the aspects being highlighted is the Walton family’s consistent and substantial support for vouchers, charters and private school tax credits. All of these initiatives are part of a clear and long-standing effort to shift the locus of education from the public to the private realm.

According to the Colorado Education Association, the Walton family gave tens of millions of dollars to such organizations just in 2003 alone. This is serious money going towards private schools, elections, foundations and think tanks, all focused on dramatically refashioning our educational system.
A special effort has been developed for this summer, connecting the dotted lines for people between the Wal-Mart shopping experience and the educational system the Walton’s envision for our society. Called “Send Wal-Mart Back to School!,” the campaign has six components, which use the dollar power of back to school purchases to drive this effort for change:

. Sign an online pledge to buy your children’s school supplies somewhere other than Wal-Mart, then send the pledge to everyone you know.
. Adopt a Wal-Mart in the Bay Area and be part of a network putting pressure on individual stores to change.
. Tell friends about the campaign.
. Download fact flyers and distribute them throughout your neighborhood, schools and other local spots.
. Share your story if you’re a Wal-Mart “veteran.”
. Host a campaign banner on your website.

Wal-Mart’s practices affect all of us, whether or not we consider ourselves Wal-Mart customers. Given that, this campaign offers us an easy way to spread the word about how expensive this discount chain really is. It also gives us an easy way to fight back for public education for our entire country, not just for our state or school district.

Organizing efforts that bring people together across a spectrum of interests are just the kind of actions we need to focus on now. Issues of public education, health care, labor issues, civil rights, and environmentally sound practices are all interdependent.
We’ve seen the power in California of nurses, teachers and parents teaming up during the recent budget struggle. Although we are still too squarely in a defensive mode, we can see these battles as opportunities to form more cohesive alliances with each other. So take the pledge and pass it on.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (

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