Though quiet and humble, my father was an outspoken and passionate advocate for children in low-income communities and their access to high-quality schools,” states Lukas Walton. Son of the late John Walton, who won the first Simon Prize in 2001, Lukas explains that his dad’s “pioneering vision helped set a course for our family’s work in expanding educational opportunity, and continues to drive our work today.”
John Walton was an early and active backer of efforts to give families a choice of schools, supporting private scholarships, vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, and other initiatives. Since 2001, education-reform grants by the Walton Family Foundation have grown from just over $12 million to more than $145 million annually. The foundation puts about $25 million every year into helping germinate great new charter schools, for instance. It has poured more than $335 million into charters serving low-income families, launching 1,500 new schools—one out of every four charters in existence.
Walton’s giving to education has also spawned scores of important reform groups—like the NewSchools Venture Fund, which raises capital from a variety of donors and invests it in promising new institutions, in the process sparking many of the most exemplary schools now operating across the U.S. The family has also provided crucial support to a range of organizations that raise school standards, help new schools acquire buildings, and monitor school quality.
John Walton believed that innovative new schools not only improve educational outcomes for the students who attend them but also create pressure on nearby schools to improve. The most lasting solutions, he came to realize, would come from putting options and resources in the hands of parents themselves. “If you look at it in terms of power,” he explained, “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 will only improve, Walton believed, if “customers”—parents—have the power to walk away from ineffective schools and take their child’s funding with them.
John Walton died in a plane crash in 2005, at the age of 58. The year before he died, Forbes estimated his fortune at $18.2 billion, but this had remarkably little effect on him. Not long after a new charter school opened in San Diego, Walton made an unannounced visit, asking how he could be of service. The school’s founder didn’t recognize him, and told Walton that the bathrooms needed cleaning. Walton simply asked, “Where’s the mop?” And so one of the wealthiest people in America spent 25 minutes swabbing floors, happy to help.