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Home » Chalk Talk – Wal-Mart 1; Teachers Unions 0

August, 2005

Earlier this week, I loaded up the car with my four kids and began the 26 minute trip to Wal-Mart in Germantown, Maryland. Two things motivated me – one, the pressing need for back-to-school supplies, and two, a union-driven effort to boycott Wal-Mart because its leadership happens to like giving poor kids choices.

At dinner the night before, I told my kids about going to Wal-Mart and about the latter reason. Twelve-year old Anthony asked why the unions would do that. I explained – in as much layman’s language as I could muster – that the National Education Association (NEA) is against many of the efforts Wal-Mart and its family founders embrace. Those efforts include scholarship programs for more than a million of America’s poorest children, contributions to support charter schools which are currently serving close to another million children, funding for standards-based reform efforts, reading programs, buildings, supplies, technology and more.

These contributions apparently worry the NEA’s top brass, despite the fact that the majority of their members benefit from better public education because of Wal-Mart’s and others’ efforts. Says the head of the Arizona NEA affiliate, John Wright, “They [Wal-Mart] have some fairly overt and direct campaigns to undermine the effectiveness of public schools and to take money out of the system a majority of Americans rely on for education.”

Overt campaigns? Take money out? One would think that the Wal-Mart executive team is directing a hate-America campaign. In reality, this company is like thousands of other enterprises that contribute millions yearly to support non-profit causes that are generated from within America’s communities. Unlike the traditional system that Wright and his colleagues in Washington want to protect at all costs, education reform efforts aim to bring parents closer to the education process and work to give children a chance out of bad schools. Rather than write big checks to an already bloated education system which often eschews the needs of its very own teachers, smart philanthropists are investing in dynamic reforms that produce results and not status-quo approaches that get funded indefinitely regardless of whether they succeed or fail.

At Wal-Mart, I was struck by how many things they had to address our one-stop-shopping needs. The variety, the colors, the sheer volume, the economy of it all, and the number of people there, by choice, all looking for things to fulfill a particular need or desire, all contribute to Wal-Mart’s success. The same marketplace approach is now alive and well in public education and making it better. Choices for parents and kids work to make all schools better. Despite a well-funded public misinformation campaign to the contrary, contributions to education reform make schools better. That’s a fact.

The NEA’s problem is that it wants everyone to believe that the top-down, centrally controlled school system of the past is what everyone needs in the future. With every other American industry morphing to accommodate changes – in everything from what we know about our own brains, to where and how we live, to what is needed to keep workers and the workplace forward-moving and competitive for decades to come – it’s time public education moved forward, too. That has begun to happen, thanks in large part to the millions of local parents, teachers, and citizens who for 15 years straight have been unabashed advocates of performance-based change and choice in education. That Wal-Mart – or any other company – helps support these advocates is a testament to its earnest appreciation for and willingness to invest in American diversity and ingenuity.

The NEA can boycott such concerns all day long if it so chooses. That labor union can join in solidarity with other union colleagues from other industries and take business to task for any reason. That’s their choice and their privilege in this country. But it’s that same country, and its free-market economy, which give its citizens other freedoms – freedoms to live where they want, purchase what they want, and yes, increasingly to send their children to schools that they believe best serve their needs. You can’t have it both ways.

Or, look at it this way: whatever you think about Wal-Mart and its growth, its market share is increasing, while the NEA’s is decreasing – rapidly. Americans clearly want options, and options are not something the NEA is prepared to embrace on any level.

Happy shopping! (Link here for more on the subject: Why Target Wal-Mart?, by Michael Reitz, Boston Globe, August 16, 2005.)