John Walton was a son of Walmart founder Sam Walton. He used his multibillion-dollar inheritance to lead and champion some of the most effective educational reforms of the early 21st century.
Born and raised in Arkansas, Walton grew up with two brothers and a sister. Their father owned a five-and-dime store. John attended the local public schools and then enrolled at the College of Wooster in Ohio. After two years in school, he dropped out and joined the Army in 1966.
Walton qualified for the Special Forces, and served as a combat medic with the Green Berets in Vietnam. His heroic efforts during fierce fighting in Laos won him a Silver Star for valor. He was once asked why he volunteered for duty with the Green Berets. “I figured if you’re going to do something,” he said, “you should do it the best you can do.”
After his discharge from the service, Walton decided to strike out on his own. “He’s the most independent of the bunch,” his father later wrote, “and the only one who doesn’t like it here in Arkansas.” John tried his hand at crop-dusting in Texas and Arizona; later, he launched a boat-building business in California. He joined the board of Walmart in 1992; seven years later, he founded True North Partners, a venture capital fund that invested in high-technology companies.
Walton’s philanthropy was principally focused on improving K-12 education in the United States. In 1983, he read A Nation at Risk, with its ominous warnings about the failings of public education. He circulated it among family members, prompting a number of discussions about ways to improve education. Sam Walton announced, “I’d like to see an all-out revolution in education.”
In many ways, John Walton spent his life trying to bring that “all-out revolution” to schoolhouses. It was a more daunting task than he originally anticipated. “Our family followed the usual course of education giving,” he explained in 2002. “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 realize, the nation’s approach to public education would have to change. “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 would only improve, he believed, if “customers”—parents—had the power to leave ineffective schools and take the money with them.
In 1998, Walton and financier Ted Forstmann created the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF). Each of the two donors pledged $50 million to underwrite scholarships that would enable low-income students to attend private schools. Their $100 million donation was able to fund 40,000 scholarships. In CSF’s first season, an astonishing 1.2 million applications came in. Walton and Forstmann were right in guessing that low-income parents all over the country were eager to have better alternatives for their children’s education, and would act if given any opening.
The initial donation was an experiment, and nothing was promised beyond a four-year period of support. But CSF’s early results were so impressive—and the demand for its scholarships so intense—that the board and founders not only continued but greatly extended the program, which continues to flourish today. Since its inception, CSF has provided scholarships worth more than $483 million, offering an education of choice to more than 123,000 low-income children. The great majority of CSF families are African-American, Latino, or recent immigrants. CSF serves a large number of single mothers, and grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.
Walton believed it was important to offer immediate help to children and parents who are struggling with failing public schools today. That was stage one. He also understood that it was necessary to change public education itself, to reduce the ranks of distressingly ill-served kids in the future.
Walton was an early backer of innovative charter schools as an essential response to the long-term problem. As public schools operating independently of existing school districts, charter schools enjoy a degree of autonomy in exchange for a measure of accountability. Recognizing the potential of charter school experiments and successes to refute the defeatist notion that poverty and other factors make inner-city children unteachable, Walton drove his family’s effort to seed effective charter schools across the country. Under his leadership, the Walton Family Foundation provided start-up grants of up to $250,000 each to more than 500 charter schools. Other support was offered to groups that organize and encourage charter school growth, and cultivate and train administrators, principals, and teachers.
The Walton Family Foundation has watered those initial seeds by supporting venture philanthropy groups like the NewSchools Venture Fund. Founded in 1998, NewSchools raises capital from a variety of donors and then invests it in promising charter school networks that are successfully replicating their successful educational formulas in additional schools and fresh cities. This early funding for ambitious educational entrepreneurs has proven crucial in the expansion of impressive charter school networks like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Achievement, First, and others, which collectively now operate hundreds of exemplary schools in scores of American cities.
John Walton further realized that large-scale school reform could not be accomplished without changing public policy. He founded the American Education Reform Foundation in 1991, which ultimately became one of three organizations that merged to form the Alliance for School Choice. The Alliance remains the largest organization in the country supporting public mechanisms which allow parents and children to choose schools that match their needs. As part of this public policy work, he helped fund the legal defense of Cleveland’s school voucher program, which culminated in 2002 with the program’s constitutional validation by the U.S. Supreme Court.
John Walton died in a plane crash in 2005, when he was 58 years old. The year before he died, Forbes estimated his fortune at $18.2 billion. But such great wealth never seemed to affect 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?” The fourth-wealthiest person in America then spent 25 minutes swabbing the floors, happy to help.
~ Naomi Schaefer Riley