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Billionaire Walton Family Behind Pro-Charter School Protest at Warren Rally

The senator spoke with the parents who protested her education plan after the event.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is joined by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) during a campaign event at Clark Atlanta University on November 21, 2019 in Atlanta. Pressley urged a group of pro-charter school demonstrators to speak with Warren after the rally about their concerns over her education plan. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren's rally on Thursday night in Atlanta was interrupted by a group of parents protesting the Massachusetts Democrat's stance on charter schools—but the grassroots-appearing demonstration was reportedly funded by the billionaire Walton family, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into privately-run schools critics say pull money away from public education.

As Warren spoke to a crowd at the historically black college Clark Atlanta University about the 1881 Atlanta Washerwoman's Strike, members of the audience began chanting, "Our children, our choice!" and "We want to be heard!"

Journalist Ryan Grim of The Intercept detailed how the protest was led by a group funded by the Waltons. 

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of the pro-charter school group Memphis Lift Parent Institute, led the demonstration, which brought parents from all over the country to Atlanta by soliciting donations through GoFundMe.

The event's GoFundMe page showed numerous $1,000 donations from anonymous sources.

Carpenter's group "is 100% funded by the Walton Foundation," wrote Grim.

Pro-charter groups have been critical of Warren's education plan, which is partially focused on reining in the charter school system and its use of public funds.

"We have a responsibility to provide great neighborhood schools for every student," Warren wrote in her plan last month. "We should stop the diversion of public dollars from traditional public schools... We should fight back against the privatization, corporatization, and profiteering in our nation's schools."

Under the senator's proposal, new for-profit charter schools would be banned from opening, and the IRS would be directed to investigate charter schools that operate as non-profits to ensure they don't actually benefit for-profit interests.

Warren supports the NAACP's proposal to allow only public school districts to authorize charter schools and would require that charter schools are "subject to the same transparency and accountability requirements as traditional public schools."

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"Our public schools should benefit students, not the financial or ideological interests of wealthy patrons like the DeVos and Walton families," Warren wrote.

The Intercept journalist Rachel Cohen pointed out that Warren has not proposed measures that would threaten the schools that the protesters at her rally send their children to "unless they were fraudulent or for-profit."

"Frankly suggesting that stronger transparency standards for publicly-funded charter schools would 'limit parental choice' is an incoherent talking point that really should not be taken seriously," she added. "Increased transparency only 'limits choice' if the charter schools themselves refuse to accept higher transparency standards."

Many national polls—often conducted by pro-charter groups—show high support for charter schools among black Americans. Many of the demonstrators at Warren's rally were black. But even in polling by the pro-charter group Democrats for Education Reform, Cohen added, a majority of both black and white respondents support a moratorium on new charter schools.

Warren halted her speech for several moments during the demonstration, while Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who endorsed the senator in the 2020 Democratic primary earlier this month, appealed to the parents to speak with Warren about their education concerns after the rally.

"We are grateful for your activism and your voice and you are welcome here," Pressley said. "No one is here to quiet you, least not this Black woman."

Grim reported that Warren "had a nice conversation" with the demonstrators after the rally.

One critic of the protest's funders proposed one reason why the Waltons bankrolled the demonstration: Warren's pledge to attack wealth inequality by imposing new taxes on the richest Americans.

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