Susie Estrada was desperate. She couldn’t find a good school for her sons in East Palo Alto, California. She couldn’t afford to move to a better district or pay tuition at a private school. She talked with other parents about starting a charter school, but they were all short on money, education, connections, and clout. It was an impossible dream—till they partnered with the School Futures Research Foundation, funded (in part) by the Walton Family Foundation to create schools of choice in low-income neighborhoods. School Futures worked with the parents to get East Palo Alto Charter School up and running.
Now part of the Aspire Public Schools network, the school ranks among the top 10 percent of schools in California serving high-minority, high-poverty populations, and matches or outperforms typical schools with middle-class students. Ninety percent of its latest graduates are going on to college, two with full scholarships to UC Berkeley and Smith. Estrada’s sons are on the college track, thanks to Walmart heir John Walton, a longtime leader of his family’s foundation.
Tragically, Walton died June 27 at the age of 58 when his ultralight plane crashed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He leaves behind a considerable legacy as a pioneer in K-12 education. “More children have benefited from John’s philanthropy than from anyone else’s in the country,” declares Peter Flanigan, a New York philanthropist who worked with Walton on funding scholarships for poor children. “Far and away, John was the leading spirit in efforts to give low-income parents a choice in education.”
Through his strategic giving, alliance building, and quiet, patient leadership, Walton shaped public policy, always aiming to leverage fundamental change in a public school system profoundly resistant to reform. “Although he would be embarrassed for me to say this, what Andrew Carnegie was to libraries, John Walton was to school choice,” says Bill Oberndorf, a Bay Area merchant banker who worked with Walton to found the American Education Reform Foundation in 1991.
“When he started the Children’s Scholarship Fund with Ted Forstmann in 1998, that opened people’s eyes to the huge number of parents who were desperate to get their kids out of the schools they were in,” says Giséle Huff, executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation in San Francisco. Walton and Forstmann created the Fund when they pledged $50 million apiece to underwrite scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. The money was enough to fund 40,000 scholarships, but the real headlines were made, notes Huff, when an astonishing 1.2 million applications came in. “That was the beginning of a national debate,” she says, because the response made it “impossible to ignore the desperation of parents whose children were in low-quality public schools.”
Since the program was established less than a decade ago, more than 67,000 low-income children have received tuition assistance from the Children’s Scholarship Fund, with over 23,000 children currently receiving tuition assistance. Since its dramatic beginning, the Fund has underscored the arguments made by Walton and other school choice proponents that parents—regardless of income—want the best possible education for their children.
Though participating parents must pay as much as 50 percent of their child’s tuition, the assistance from donors and more than three dozen partners would not likely exist without Walton’s example. As Huff says, Walton’s “only concern was saving underprivileged children, as many as possible. And he was willing to do whatever was worth doing to reach that goal. He believed that if parents were empowered, children would be saved.”
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is one of many who have lauded the Children’s Scholarship Fund: “What is significant about [the Fund] is that they are giving families a choice as to how their children will be educated. A choice that so many other Americans enjoy simply because they have the means to exercise that choice.”
Still, Walton knew that private philanthropy couldn’t get enough children out of dead-end schools, says Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice (which was created by a Walton-engineered merger of the American Education Reform Council and Children First America). So Walton entered the public policy arena to advocate that low-income children be given tax-funded vouchers to attend the school of their choice. As part of this public policy work, he helped fund the legal battle to defend Cleveland’s school voucher program, a fight that led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court victory in 2002.
Helping Charters, Too
Walton’s pioneering work in private scholarships and publicly funded vouchers also did much to aid another major avenue of education reform: the charter school movement. To those, like the teachers’ unions, who feared the rise of vouchers, charter schools suddenly seemed less of a threat to the status quo, because charters remain part of public school systems even as they are released from some of the burdensome regulations that plague conventional public schools.
With his goal of coalition-building, Walton welcomed the prospect of more charter schools and used his funds to ensure that good charter choices would be available. As Walton said, “We have enthusiastically supported the charter movement—as well as vouchers and scholarships to private schools—because we believe empowering parents to choose among competing schools will catalyze improvement across the entire K-12 education system.”
“I don’t know if we’d have a charter school movement without John Walton,” remarks Kim Smith, executive chairman and co-founder of NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools is another Walton Family Foundation-backed endeavor. Founded in 1998 by venture capitalists Brook Byers and John Doerr, and Smith, NewSchools raises early-stage capital from a variety of donors and then invests it in promising education entrepreneurs who are developing systems of alternative schools, including charter schools.
Under John Walton’s leadership, his family’s foundation has provided more than 500 charter schools with start-up capital of up to $250,000 each. This kind of support is crucial, because most states require that a new charter school raise the money to fund the capital expenditures needed to acquire its facilities, a requirement not made of conventional public schools, which receive facilities gratis. Such a requirement sets up a huge roadblock to success for would-be charter schools, because it is difficult for charter school entrepreneurs to raise the large sums needed for capital expenditures, in part because banks are wary of lending to new and unproven schools.
Yet another part of Walton’s strategy for overcoming this facilities obstacle was his work with groups such as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). In line with Walton’s vision, LISC has launched a “national initiative to support the financing of charter and alternative school facilities. With initial funding from the Walton Family Foundation, LISC has created the Educational Facilities Financing Center (EFFC). The EFFC will pool low-interest loan funds with those already received from the Walton Family Foundation and others, and leverage them for investment in charter and alternative school facilities. Support for this initiative will help create vital new or renovated school facilities for underserved children, families, and communities across the nation.”
A Family Commitment
The 1983 Nation at Risk report, with its harsh warnings about the failings of public schools, prompted Walton family discussions about improving education, John Walton later recalled, “I’d like to see an all-out revolution in education,” Sam Walton, the family patriarch and Walmart founder, wrote in his autobiography.
But the family took time to figure out how to be effective givers. As John Walton explained at The Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2002 annual meeting, the family followed “the usual course of education giving: You begin to support programs you hope will address the problems, and you see some improvement. But the improvements are transitory, lasting only as long as the heroes making them work are on the job. When the heroes go away, the programs become ineffective.”
To create lasting change, Walton came to believe, parents must be empowered by having control of the money committed to their children’s education: “If you look at it in terms of power—something all the opponents of choice understand very well—you will ‘follow the money.’ The money in education comes from the top, filters its way down, and various interest groups and factions pull off their share into what they think is important. The customers at the bottom just take what they’re given.” Public schools would only improve, he believed, if those “customers,” the parents, could leave ineffective schools and choose alternatives.
Peter Flanigan observes that “there are two effective ways to go about funding education. The first is to save kids now. Give them an opportunity to leave the schools that are failing and go to schools that teach. The scholarship programs that exist now are largely because of John and the Children’s Scholarship Fund. The second way is to reform the public school system, which must be reformed because it will always educate most kids. It will only be reformed if parents have the right to choose their children’s schools; the public schools will try to make themselves attractive to parents if they no longer have a monopoly.”
Walton worked energetically on both fronts, using choice as his lever to try to reform the public system. “He was willing to commit serious money to get projects off the ground,” says Dan Peters, president of the Ruth and Lovett Peters Foundation and chairman of The Philanthropy Roundtable. “When others wanted to wait till it was safe and proven, John was willing to move forward.” But it wasn’t just the money that made Walton such a powerful force. “He was a friend, counselor, mentor, funder, peacekeeper, and passionate advocate for kids who were getting a raw deal.”
“What was unique about John Walton was that he challenged the system with his giving, which was aimed at creating competition through charter schools and scholarships,” says Tom Loveless, a widely respected education scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Most large foundations do almost all their giving under the existing public school system. Walton challenged the system, but he didn’t see himself as anti-public school. He saw his strategy as revitalizing public schools through healthy competition.”
Dan Schmidt, vice president for program at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, lays out the strategy: Fund researchers who will analyze an education idea. Back a demonstration project to test the idea, paying close attention to results. Build a coalition with people of all political views and backgrounds who agree on the need for better schools. The coalition “can’t just be white Republicans,” Schmidt says. Persuade policymakers and legislators to enact needed changes. Defend the idea in court against the inevitable lawsuits. Walton was there at every step, always pushing “to take the abstract idea and put it into action,” says Schmidt.
For example, Walton helped support a critical relationship-building effort by school choice proponent Kevin Teasley, president of the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation. Recognizing that low-income students had the most to gain from choice, Walton understood that cross-cultural relationships had to be built in order for community leaders to see the value of the choice movement. So he helped finance Teasley’s efforts to bring teams of educators and education advocates from Colorado and other states—many of them opposed to school choice—to Milwaukee, where they witnessed firsthand not only dramatically improved learning on the part of students in a choice system, but equally important, a community that was able to overcome racial, economic, and social barriers to school choice by forging relationships among all segments of the population. Many who were skeptical of school choice returned from these Milwaukee trips ready to lead the fight for reform in their own locales.
Linking Entrepreneurship and Education
Because he saw charter schools as an important part of broadening parental choice, Walton funded school choice research, then provided start-up and growth funds to high-quality charter schools that could compete with traditional schools. He also worked to change laws that blocked the expansion of charter schools.
“Walton took the lead in linking entrepreneurship and education by ensuring that educators with innovative ideas for how to raise student achievement put their ideas into practice,” says Michael Feinberg, co-founder of the KIPP “brand” of charter schools that now educate more than 10,000 students nationwide. He “pushed us to think about how to leverage the success in the two original KIPP schools to help a far greater number of underserved children.”
At the KIPP Lynn Academy in Massachusetts, for instance, principal Joshua Zoia used Walton funding to renovate a building, hire teachers to handle electives, pay for field trips, and fund classroom libraries. Walton money drew more money. “People don’t want to take a chance at a new school. They say, ‘Who else is funding you? Oh, the Waltons, O.K.!’ The money let us function like a fully grown school in our first year. It allowed us to be better faster.” (In its first year of operation, the school has seen its average student’s math and reading abilities rise 2.7 grade levels.)
Walton also built a network of state charter school organizations, support groups, and advocacy groups to help the schools improve internally and to defend the schools externally in often hostile political environments. To broaden the coalition for school reform, he funded the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (Hispanic CREO), two minority-run groups that educate parents and government officials on the need for educational reform.
Walton also supported some reformers within the traditional public school system, such as Alan Bersin, who had a stormy tenure as superintendent in San Diego and now serves as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief education aide. Walton liked mavericks.
“Tactically, he looked for what was most achievable and attainable,” says Steve Friess, a family friend who heads the Jackson Hole Institute. “He thought all kinds of choice ideas had to be pushed forward because, depending on where the opposition came from, some would be more effective than others. Every lever of pressure was needed to push for change.”
“He was a not-so-elder statesman of the school choice movement,” agrees Bolick. “He had a universalist vision that included vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, and public school reform,” and he was able to persuade advocates of different choice ideas that they were all on the same side. “He could identify common ground and build from there.”
Walton’s judgment was “impeccable,” says Don Fisher, himself a prominent education philanthropist who established the Pisces Foundation and sits on the California State Board of Education. “When other donors saw what John Walton did and saw it was money well spent, they followed his lead. His money was a catalyst for others to give.”
Working for Lasting Change
In 1993, Walter Annenberg pledged $500 million in grants to troubled school systems. With matching funds raised by districts, more than $1 billion was generated by the Annenberg Challenge. But in most locales the money didn’t create significant change—except in philanthropists’ attitudes. Now, after the disappointments with Annenberg’s effort, “foundations are much less likely to give big grants without strings attached, just trusting people to do something good with it,” Brookings’ Loveless says. “Givers are more specific in structuring grants.”
Traditional education donors like Carnegie, Ford, and Annenberg have been supplanted by “muscular” philanthropists, writes Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the new book, With the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy Is Reshaping K-12 Education. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have become the dominant K-12 education givers, along with foundations created by Eli Broad, Don Fisher, and Michael and Lowell Milken. The new givers build partnerships with innovators and invest in good ideas, Hess writes. They want to change the system, not just tweak it here and there.
Thanks to these newcomers, giving to K-12 schools by large foundations doubled from 1998 to 2003, the Foundation Center reports. The new philanthropists want a clear return on their investment. “If you create a foundation and wait for people to come with grant applications, that’s easy,” Broad tells the New York Times, “but unless you come up with a business plan and monitor it, and see results, it’s very easy to throw away millions of dollars.”
Focus is the key: The Gates Foundation focuses on promoting a model: small high schools that prepare all students for college; Broad focuses on training school superintendents, principals, and school board members; Milken focuses on raising teacher quality, including the advocacy of merit-based pay systems.
Under John Walton’s leadership, the Walton Family Foundation took the most radical path, working to create structural change in the system by shifting power from providers to parents. “He appreciated that you sometimes have to be controversial to get results,” says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, one of the advocacy groups Walton backed.
An Enduring Commitment
The Walton Family Foundation has given more than $701 million to education causes since 1998, USA Today estimates. Most is devoted to supporting charters and other school choice initiatives, as well as education and development in northwest Arkansas and the Mississippi River delta.
Sam Walton talked of giving as much as 20 percent of the family’s Walmart stock (now worth in total about $100 billion) to education causes. Sam’s widow Helen and each of their four children own 20 percent of the stock, which was divided long before Walmart became a retailing giant. After his father’s death in 1992, John Walton said donating 20 percent was “likely.”
Without getting into specifics, his brother Jim says the foundation’s commitment to education will remain strong. “No one in our family believed more strongly in improving our education system, or worked more passionately at the issue, than John,” Jim Walton says. “He saw a better system of education as an essential tool for improving our society, and he gave not only his money, but also his time and energy to the cause.
“Because all the members of the family believe as he did, we will honor his legacy—and that of our father—by continuing to focus a significant portion of our philanthropic activities on education. The family has lost an adored member, but not our passion to arrive at the day when all the children of this nation, regardless of racial or economic background, have the choice of a quality education.”
“The Walton family has had an enduring interest in improving educational opportunity for children for decades,” adds Buddy D. Philpot, executive director of the Walton Family Foundation. “The family has long believed that no other single area of activity could have the breadth of impact on our country as improving education from kindergarten through high school.”
When John Walton died, Forbes listed him as the eleventh richest man in the world, worth $18.2 billion. But when he was a boy in Arkansas, his father Sam ran a five-and-dime store. John Walton attended local public schools, then went on to the College of Wooster in Ohio. He dropped out to join the U.S. Army, volunteered for the Green Berets, served as a medic in an elite special operations unit, and won a Silver Star for saving the lives of his fellow commandos in fierce combat in Laos.
After his Vietnam service, Walton became Walmart’s company pilot but soon decided to go his own way. He started a crop-dusting business in Texas and Arizona and then a boat-building business in California. Eventually, he created True North Partners, a venture capital fund. He joined the Walmart board in 1990. With his second wife, Christy, he raised a son, Luke, now 18, in the San Diego area and then Wyoming.
Everyone who met Walton uses the same words to talk about him: “unassuming,” “down to earth,” “humble,” “unpretentious,” “just John.” He reminded Giséle Huff of Gary Cooper: “He was the quintessential American hero who knows the difference between right and wrong and takes action to do what’s right. One man standing against the establishment. He had the strength of his convictions. He also was an ‘aw, shucks’ kind of person.
“Usually, with people who have an enormous amount of money and a cause close to their heart, you can’t tell them anything. They don’t want to listen. John was just the opposite. He was always curious and eager to listen to ideas and explore possibilities. He had no ego. That’s incredibly unusual—to have a tremendous amount of resources and that much humility. He was ten times more effective because he listened to people. I never met anyone as receptive as John. In two seconds, he made you feel, he’s ‘just John.’”
Before the tenth anniversary gala for the Center for Education Reform, Huff recalls, Walton asked whether he needed to rent a tuxedo. He’d rather not, he said, because whenever he wore one, people treated him differently.
Because he was “completely, utterly, personally engaged,” Walton was able to bring people into the choice movement, says Susan Mitchell of School Choice Wisconsin. “He was passionately committed to the idea of empowering parents. He believed that in a democracy everybody deserves an opportunity. He saw poor children weren’t getting an opportunity for a good education. If this country is to succeed, that can’t continue. If poor children can’t get a good education that goes against what we say we stand for.” Adds Steve Friess, who was inspired by Walton to become involved in school choice: “Though John never would have used the word patriotism, I think he saw it as his patriotic duty.”
Kristyn Klei, former principal of East Palo Alto Charter School and now principal of a new Oakland K-5 charter, says, “He was the most humble and sincere man I’ve ever met in my life, so bright and so respectful. With John Walton, it wasn’t, ‘I’m going to come in with my money and tell you what to do.’ He’d ask questions, and then he’d come back and ask better questions the next time.”
“It was the way he chose to go about giving that impressed me most,” Oberndorf observes. “Despite his great wealth and steadfast determination, John simply never, ever pulled rank. While he let his views be known, he believed in building consensus and in forging collaborations.”
Walton’ commitment was absolute, says Kim Smith. “Here was an ally who would never leave your side.”
Don Shalvey, founder of Aspire, a network of 14 charters, remembers visiting Oakland charter schools with Walton. “He drove us around. I left my blazer in his car. He called the next day—personally—to say he was FedExing it to me.”
“He’d say, ‘My name is John. How can I help?’” recalls Dan Peters. “It wasn’t an act. It’s who he was.”
On a visit to the King-Chavez Academy of Excellence in San Diego, Walton asked founder Dennis McKeown if there was anything he could do to help. McKeown said the bathrooms needed cleaning, he later told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Where’s the mop?” Walton asked. He spent the next 25 minutes mopping floors. Later he gave McKeown $540,000 to turn a failing school into three new charter schools.
While others will “carry on the fight” for educational opportunities, “it’s impossible to replace someone of his ability,” says Julian Robertson of Tiger Management, who worked with Walton on the Children’s Scholarship Fund. “I’m a great admirer of that man.”
“We’ll miss John terribly, but his spirit will survive,” Flanigan concludes. “There ’s enough momentum and structural organization that it will go on. We’ll miss his energy and consistency and—humble is a funny word. He was the practitioner of the idea that if you want to get something done, give someone else the credit.
“He never was willing to put himself forward. He was one of the most extraordinary persons I’ve ever met.”
Chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, from his remarks at memorial services for John Walton in Jackson Hole, Wyoming:
I feel such a profound sense of loss, but it is countered by a strong sense of gratitude that God allowed this phenomenal man to be in our midst. The deep sense of emptiness that I have felt ever since I heard the news of John’s death exists side by side with a deep reservoir of fullness—fullness because John gave all of us so much of himself. This humble, unassuming, relentless man was the fiercest warrior amongst us in the fight to empower the poorest families to be able to access the best learning environments for their children.
Think of the thousands of children whose lives have been enhanced because of John. They now have a future because of John. There are future doctors, lawyers, engineers, computer programmers, video game creators, nurses, teachers, investment bankers, elected officials, and ministers that will make their mark on this world because of John.
I asked John why he was such a staunch supporter of the movement. I will never forget what he told me. He said poor children were getting a raw deal in this country and he wanted to do something about it, and he was lucky enough to be in a position to do so.
We are all going to miss him terribly. He is not replaceable. But at the same time I truly believe the only way to honor a fallen warrior is to intensify the struggle, to fight harder in the battle that he was waging.
Tom Vander Ark
Executive director of education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
John Walton’s commitment to school choice and the Walton Foundation’s investments in charter schools are helping to provide America’s students, especially low-income and minority youth, with more high-quality education options. By acknowledging that no two students learn alike and by investing in schools so they can be innovative and dynamic in their approach, communities can help all young people graduate from high school ready for the demands of college and work.
Chester E. Finn Jr.
President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Soft-spoken, unassuming, and selfless, this billionaire gave tens of millions of dollars to create better educational opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters. Unlike many philanthropists who pick one path or the other, John was both strategic with respect to policy and open-handed with respect to kids in need.
Nor did he simply write checks; he served on boards, he checked people out, he made calls, he asked probing questions—and he displayed plenty of grit and determination (as he had in Vietnam decades earlier) when it was necessary to make tough decisions, pull plugs, and reinvent things. He was also one of the least pretentious and kindest people you’d ever want to know.
President, Alliance for School Choice
No one has had a greater impact on educational reform in America than John Walton. Though he is perhaps best known for his generous scholarships for low-income children, John’s enduring legacy is systemic policy change, both in the metamorphosis of public schools into flexible, responsive, consumer-driven institutions, and the emergence of school choice both as an educational life preserver and catalyst for public school reform. John’s gentle nature, incisive mind, ecumenical spirit, and sense of urgency helped unite and focus the school choice movement.
John’s shoes will be impossible to fill unless all those committed to making good on the promise of educational opportunity pull forward together.
William M. Steinbrook Jr.
Executive director of the Challenge Foundation
There is a brief passage in the Old Testament that sums up what I think John Walton meant to education philanthropy. It is from Micah 6:8. “God has shown you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”
When it came to addressing the right of every child in America to receive a quality education regardless of race, or poverty, or any other overwhelming social circumstance, there was no one more just and fair than John Walton. And when it came to responding to their needs to make it possible to choose a better school, no one was more kind and generous than John Walton. And no one approached this critical enterprise of education philanthropy with more humility than John Walton. He has truly set an example for us all to follow.