How Walmart pushed Arkansas public schools to go woke

(Washington Free Beacon) – In January 2020, Walmart approached public school administrators in Bentonville, Arkansas, about hosting diversity training sessions for the district.

“We want people to…

(Washington Free Beacon) – In January 2020, Walmart approached public school administrators in Bentonville, Arkansas, about hosting diversity training sessions for the district.

“We want people to feel welcomed, comfortable, and safe living here” in Northwest Arkansas, Candice Jones, Walmart’s head of diversity, emailed district leaders, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. To that end, the company was offering to arrange teacher training sessions with a North Carolina-based consultancy known as the Racial Equity Institute, a group “devoted to creating racially equitable organizations and systems.”

“This would be great for teacher development and a great way to connect with the community,” Jones said.

By August, teachers were learning that “perfectionism” is “white supremacy” and that “all our systems, institutions, and outcomes emanate from the racial hierarchy on which the United States was built.”

Bentonville—the site of Walmart’s corporate headquarters—wasn’t alone.

In nearby Fayetteville, the district’s public schools embarked on a five-year “equity plan” funded and designed by Walmart-funded groups, including a DEI “research institute” at the University of Arkansas. School leaders attended trainings on the “six tenets of critical race theory,” learned that “systemic inequality = trauma,” were drilled on the harmful effects of “microaggressions,” and sat through PowerPoints on “intersectionality.”

The district also implemented a “restorative justice” program—designed to combat the allegedly “disproportionate” discipline of black students—that discouraged teachers from breaking up fights and instructed them to sit on the floor with students to “dispel any sense of hierarchy.”

This report is based on thousands of pages of documents obtained through public records requests submitted by families in Bentonville and Fayetteville. It reveals how the world’s largest retailer is transforming schools in its hometown through grants, nonprofits, and corporate outreach, laundering its ideology as a kind of noblesse oblige.

The transformation highlights the tension between democracy and DEI, which—as one Walmart and Walton-funded diversity program, “TRUE,” put it in a presentation to Fayetteville Public Schools—”sometimes must be imposed from the top down.”

These initiatives might seem out of place in Northwest Arkansas, which voted overwhelmingly for former president Donald Trump. But Walmart, long a bogeyman for liberals concerned about the power of big business, has become just as progressive as the rest of corporate America, earning a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index in 2022.

The company is owned and controlled by the descendants of Sam Walton, who opened the first Walmart store in 1962. Once staunch Republicans with close ties to the national GOP, the Waltons have shifted left with each passing generation—and with the 2016 election, they began giving nearly as much to Democratic campaigns as to Republican ones.

That rapprochement has accompanied a shift in philanthropic priorities. Since 2018, the Waltons, who make grants directly through the Walton Family Foundation and indirectly through the Walmart Foundation, have spent millions on progressive initiatives across Arkansas—including drag shows for children and pro-bono DEI consulting.

Theatersarts centershealth and housing nonprofitsbusiness associations, and the Benton County government are just some of the organizations that have conducted diversity training on the Waltons’ dime. While those trainings are par for the course at big corporations—and a grant magnet for big foundations—few companies have funded DEI programs outside their walls. And even fewer have funded them in public schools.

Now, as the Waltons target classrooms in their hometown, longtime Arkansans are sounding the alarm, warning that revolution has come for a state Trump won by 28 points in 2020.

“Parents are often lulled into the belief that woke ideology won’t happen in their schools because they live in a ‘red’ state,” said Carolyn Horine, a Bentonville parent. “Trust me as someone living in a conservative area: it can happen anywhere.”

This transformation has taken place largely out of public view, aided and abetted not just by Walmart and the Waltons’ largesse but by the school districts’ lack of transparency. Fayetteville, for example, repeatedly assured parents that critical race theory was not being taught in schools even as it refused to comply with public records requests for DEI-related documents.

Families who finally got ahold of those records were left feeling betrayed. “We love Walmart around here,” said Ila Campbell, a retired history teacher who sued the Fayetteville school district after it stonewalled her records request. “They’ve used their money to better the lives of people in Arkansas. That’s why it was so disconcerting to see them funding this stuff.”

Long the dominant philanthropic force in Northwest Arkansas, the Walton empire is a case study in how cultural and corporate power interact. Local groups curry favor with the Waltons, said Jay Greene, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who used to teach at the University of Arkansas, because they rely on the family for grants. School districts “tend to be very aware of the Waltons’ priorities,” Greene said, “and are inclined to implement them even if not directly required to do so.”

That meant Walmart was pushing on an open door when it offered to connect Bentonville school administrators with the Racial Equity Institute, the same consulting group that conducts the company’s own diversity training sessions. The district’s superintendent, Debbie Jones, and its director of secondary education, Jennifer Morrow, accepted the offer in July 2020, according to emails reviewed by the Free Beacon, scheduling a mandatory training for all teachers that August.

It is not clear whether Walmart paid for that training or merely facilitated it. What is clear is that Walmart approved its contents. One workbook from the training was emblazoned with Walmart’s logo and included a “welcome message” from the company’s diversity office, which billed the workshop as a “powerful and thought-provoking” program “facilitated by experts from the Racial Equity Institute.”

The session was a grab bag of DEI shibboleths. It listed “perfectionism,” “a sense of urgency,” and “worship of the written word” as examples of “white supremacy culture”; described “assimilation” and “tolerance” as markers of “internalized racial inferiority”; and defended racial preferences by saying that white people had “400 years of affirmative action.” Participants were asked to reflect on each teaching using the Walmart-approved workbook, which included diagrams on the distinction between “equality” and “equity.”

The district would later seek to distance itself from these lessons. In a September 2022 Facebook exchange with Horine, the Bentonville parent, Bentonville school board member Jennifer Faddis claimed that only “some staff” attended the training, adding that Bentonville “pulled out” after realizing “what was included.” The Free Beacon was not able to verify Faddis’s claim that Bentonville had extricated itself from the program, and she did not respond to a request for comment.

But at least one high school in the district, Bentonville West High, was still using the Racial Equity Institute for all-staff trainings as late as April 2021, according to planning documents from the school. And in a January 2022 email, Debbie Jones, the district’s superintendent, referred to the Racial Equity Institute as a “quality” program, saying it “wasn’t biased or trying to convince me of anything.”

Debbie Jones, Morrow, the director of secondary education, and Candice Jones, Walmart’s head of diversity, did not respond to requests for comment.

Walmart’s influence was even stronger in Fayetteville, where the district outsourced much of its DEI work to a byzantine network of Walmart and Walton family-backed groups. In 2019, the Fayetteville Public School district was chosen to participate in a $2.5 million DEI training initiative, TRUE Northwest Arkansas, funded by the Walmart Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The program has since expanded to include hundreds of groups in the region.

TRUE connected district leaders with Converge, a “social-justice consulting firm,” for one-on-one coaching, according to a May 2019 email. The company—which specializes in “intersectional equity analysis”—also conducted an “organizational assessment” of the district, the results of which were presented at the Walton Arts Center that July.

There has been “backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion among staff and patrons,” one slide from the presentation read. “DEI can and sometimes must be imposed from the top down.”

TRUE, which has since rebranded as TRU, did not respond to a request for comment. Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

Fayetteville also partnered with the University of Arkansas’s IDEALS Institute—another DEI program funded by Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation—to create a “Five-Year Equity Competency Plan,” which began in 2019. Years two and three of the plan were funded by a $200,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation, which paid for training sessions on “microaggressions,” “DEI leadership,” and “culturally relevant pedagogy,” according to copies of the grant application and equity plan.

Some of those trainings explicitly referenced critical race theory. In October 2019, the district brought in Sheldon Lanier, a public school administrator from Durham, North Carolina, to train district leaders on the “six tenets of critical race theory,” including “intersectionality,” “whiteness as property,” and the “permanence of racism,” according to a summary of the training. He returned in March 2021 for another training—this time on “culturally responsive instruction”—that called for the “implementation of CRT strategies” in the classroom.

Lanier and the IDEALS Institute did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Fayetteville Public Schools, Alan Wilbourn, said it was the district that decided to invite Lanier, not IDEALS, though his sessions appear to have been part of a professional development series outlined in the equity plan.

The $200,000 grant wouldn’t just fund diversity training, district leaders told Walmart in its grant application: some of the money would also go toward curbing “disproportionate discipline.” In 2019, the Arkansas Department of Education had ordered Fayetteville to review its disciplinary policies on the grounds that black and disabled students were suspended at higher rates than others in the district, according to presentations and meeting minutes reviewed by the Free Beacon. Support from Walmart would help eliminate those disparities, the grant application said.

One way the district sought to do that was by embracing “restorative justice,” an approach to school discipline that discourages punishing or even reprimanding bad behavior. By 2020, a year after the Walmart-backed equity plan began, Fayetteville High School was telling teachers to avoid the phrase “don’t touch her,” according to the school’s “Restorative Practices Handbook.”  Staff were instead instructed to address physical molestation with statements like “I feel really uncomfortable,” and, if necessary, to form a “restorative circle” with students.

“To dispel any sense of hierarchy” in the circle, the handbook counsels, teachers and students should both sit on the floor.

Such policies are now widespread in the district, Fayetteville parents and teachers say, and have made it nearly impossible to remove dangerous students from the classroom. One parent said her child’s elementary school had refused to discipline students who were assaulting their peers. And an elementary school teacher said she was not allowed to tell students “no,” much less take away recess time.

“We have eliminated every possible consequence,” the teacher said, adding that administrators will sometimes reward bad behavior. “I had a child who was throwing scissors,” the teacher recalled. “When I sent him to the principal’s office, he came back five minutes later with a stick of gum.”

The IDEALS Institute was not directly involved in designing these policies, Wilbourn, the Fayetteville spokesperson, told the Free Beacon. But they reflect a key premise of the Walmart-backed equity plan: If some students are disciplined more than others, it must be because the district is biased against them—not because they act out more frequently.

Between 2019 and 2021, the district hosted several presentations on the causes of disproportionate discipline. None of them suggested that family structure—or, in the case of special needs students, emotional and intellectual handicaps—might play a role in the disparities. The main culprits were implicit bias, “cultural dissonance,” and “zero tolerance” policies, the presentations said.

Fayetteville took great pains to shield these materials from public scrutiny. It initially refused to comply with a public record request from Campbell, the retired history teacher, who in June 2021 asked for detailed information about the equity plan. The district only relented after she filed a lawsuit under Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act, materials from the lawsuit show. A judge later ruled that the delay had violated state law and ordered Fayetteville to pay Campbell’s attorney fees.

The district also sought to allay concerns that it was teaching critical race theory. By May 2021, according to emails reviewed by the Free Beacon, parents were reaching out to teachers about the equity plan and the Waltons’ role in it—queries that prompted the district to create a fact sheet dispelling “misconceptions” about “equity and inclusion.”

“CRT is not an identified part of district curriculum,” the fact sheet said. It did not mention that the district’s diversity training had called for the “implementation of CRT strategies” earlier that year.

Some Arkansans see little hope of reining in the retail juggernaut. Walmart is not just a philanthropic powerhouse but an economic provider, bringing jobs and investment—as well as frequent campaign contributions—to its home state.

“People are afraid to go after Walmart,” Campbell said, noting that politicians on both sides of the aisle benefit from the company’s largesse.

Now, though, there are signs that the Waltons’ political influence may have peaked. Even as the family has consolidated its hold over Northwest Arkansas, it has suffered several high-profile defeats at the hands of state legislators, who are increasingly thumbing their nose at the family’s politics.

In 2021, the Waltons prevailed upon Arkansas’s then-governor, Asa Hutchinson (R.), to veto a ban on transgender surgeries for minors, only for the legislature to override the veto and sign the bill into law. And in January of this year, Hutchinson’s successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R.), signed an executive order banning critical race theory in Arkansas schools. Though the Waltons haven’t taken a stance on that measure, it will potentially outlaw the sort of programming they have pumped into public education.

The pushback bodes ill for Arkansas’s corporate goliath, which may soon face the slingshot of the state’s voters.

The Waltons’ woke turn is “costing them influence,” Greene, the Heritage Foundation fellow, said. “And their public defeats are further diminishing their power in the state.”