How Agu­dah and Wal-Mart Money Came To­gether To Back School Choice

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Josh Nathan-Kazis

The largest donor to the ul­tra-Ortho­dox um­brella or­ga­ni­za­tion Agu­dath Is­rael of Amer­ica is a Chris­tian fam­ily from Arkansas.

The Agu­dah, as the or­ga­ni­za­tion is known, rep­re­sents some of the most strin­gent, black-hat-wear­ing Ortho­dox Jews in the United States. Its back­ers in­clude wealthy Jewish de­vel­op­ers and health care mag­nates. The or­ga­ni­za­tion, how­ever, has re­ceived more money in the past six years from the ma­jor­ity own­ers of Wal-Mart than from any other sin­gle giver.

The do­na­tions come from the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, run by the de­scen­dants of Sam Wal­ton, Wal-Mart’s founder. Wal­ton was a Pres­by­te­rian, and his home base of Ben­tonville, Arkansas, didn’t have a syn­a­gogue un­til 2004.

The Agu­dah’s spir­i­tual leader, Rabbi Yaakov Per­low, warned at a May fundrais­ing din­ner that the “To­rah must be guarded from the sec­u­lar forces that seek to cor­rupt its val­ues.” Yet de­spite their dif­fer­ences, the Agu­dah and the Wal­ton foun­da­tion have forged a part­ner­ship over their mu­tual sup­port for pub­lic fund­ing for pri­vate re­li­gious schools.

Since 2008, the Wal­ton foun­da­tion has in­cor­po­rated the Agu­dah into a mas­sive na­tional net­work push­ing its con­ser­va­tive vi­sion of school re­form, which em­pha­sizes char­ter schools and school voucher pro­grams.

The Agu­dah, in re­turn, has re­ceived or been pledged $3.1 mil­lion by the foun­da­tion, ac­cord­ing to Rabbi Ye­hiel Kal­ish, vice pres­i­dent of de­vel­op­ment and state re­la­tions. The group spent $18 mil­lion over­all in 2012, the most re­cent year for which data are avail­able.

“They saw the Ortho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity as a nat­u­ral sup­port mech­a­nism,” said Kal­ish, who is the group’s link with the Wal­tons.

Kal­ish said that the Wal­tons are pay­ing the Agu­dah to ed­u­cate its ul­tra-Ortho­dox con­stituents on school re­form is­sues, in the hopes that they will sup­port Wal­ton-backed groups work­ing to pass school-choice leg­is­la­tion through­out the coun­try.

“Their main con­cern was that we ed­u­cate our com­mu­nity to the point that they would be sup­port­ive and knowl­edge­able about those [lob­by­ing] groups and their ef­forts to pass… mean­ing­ful ed­u­ca­tion re­form,” Kal­ish said.

The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

‘Their main con­cern is that we ed­u­cate our com­mu­nity.’

The foun­da­tion is one of the leading spenders in the na­tional ed­u­ca­tion re­form move­ment, hav­ing spent $1 bil­lion on ed­u­ca­tion since 2000, ac­cord­ing to The New York Times. Re­cip­i­ents of the foun­da­tion’s grants in­clude char­ter school net­works, Teach for Amer­ica, a bevy of ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions, like Ed­u­ca­tion Re­form Now and the Al­liance for School Choice, and right-wing think tanks like the Her­itage Foun­da­tion and the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute.

Agu­dath Is­rael makes up a small piece of this pro-school-choice fir­ma­ment. Its an­nual grants are far from the largest that the Wal­ton foun­da­tion makes to ed­u­ca­tion­re­lated char­i­ties. To Agu­dath Is­rael, though, the im­pact has been sig­nif­i­cant. Ac­cord­ing to Kal­ish, the grants have al­lowed him to hire a staff of eight people, some part time, who do ad­vo­cacy work in six states and Wash­ing­ton.

Agu­dath Is­rael is or­ga­nized as a tax-ex­empt pub­lic char­ity, and con­tri­bu­tions to it are tax de­ductible. As a con­di­tion of grant­ing it this sta­tus, the IRS lim­its the pro­por­tion of its ex­pen­di­tures that it can de­vote to lob­by­ing. But its $18 mil­lion budget al­lows it to spend a sig­nif­i­cant sum on lob­by­ing with­out go­ing over this limit.

Kal­ish said that his staff has been in­volved in a long list of school re­form ef­forts since join­ing up with Wal­ton: a cam­paign to ex­pand the voucher pro­gram in Ohio, an ef­fort to push back pro­posed lim­its to vouch­ers in Wis­con­sin, an ex­pan­sion of a voucher pro­gram in Florida. Agu­dath Is­rael staff also worked on the pro­posed ed­u­ca­tion tax credit that failed to pass in New York this past spring.

Prepa­ra­tion for the New York ini­tia­tive among Wal­ton-backed groups be­gan as far back as 2010, ac­cord­ing to Kal­ish. Agu­dath Is­rael has been in­vited to reg­u­lar con­fer­ences and phone meet­ings, of­ten hosted by the Al­liance for School Choice, where Wal­ton-backed groups co­or­di­nate ef­forts, he said.

“Right now is when we’re de­ter­min­ing what we’re do­ing next year, which states we’re go­ing to be tar­get­ing,” Kal­ish said, re­fer­ring to on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tions with other Wal­ton-backed groups. When the con­ver­sa­tion turns to is­sues that Agu­dath Is­rael doesn’t care about, like char­ter schools, the or­ga­ni­za­tion par­tic­i­pates, but as an out­sider.

Next year, Kal­ish said, his troops may try again to pass the ed­u­ca­tion tax credit in New York. They’re also look­ing to Illi­nois, where they hope to push through a voucher pro­gram.

Kal­ish first linked up with the Wal­tons in 2002, af­ter he was quoted in a Chicago Tri­bune ar­ti­cle on a land­mark U.S. Supreme Court case that found that us­ing vouch­ers to pay for re­li­gious school ed­u­ca­tions did not nec­es­sar­ily vi­o­late the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. An ac­tivist saw the quote and in­vited Kal­ish to a meet­ing about the Al­liance for School Choice, then newly founded. Kal­ish met Sam Wal­ton’s son John there, and the two started talk­ing.

It took six years for Kal­ish to se­cure his first grant from the Wal­tons — a $300,000 do­na­tion in 2008. The money has flowed since then.

“I may not have the ex­pen­sive staff that I have through­out the coun­try to make as big an im­pact if it [weren’t] for the Wal­tons,” Kal­ish said.

COUR­TESY AGU­DATH IS­RAEL

Spir­i­tual Leader: Rabbi Yaakov Per­low heads Agu­dath.

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