The Walton Family Foundation was founded in 1991, the same year that Minnesota passed the nation’s first law establishing charter schools. The two innovations soon prospered in tandem, but only after some trial and error. After the foundation’s early educational grants yielded disappointing results, John Walton concluded that empowering parents to choose among meaningful alternatives would be the best way to encourage excellent education. Schools would strive for the “business” of more parents, resulting in the long run in more successful institutions catering to a wider range of students. Under the status quo, he warned, “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.” If the customers are offered options, he believed, the incentives for educational improvement will be much stronger.
The foundation’s grantmaking strategy was rebuilt around these convictions. A centerpiece was support for charter schools—which bring decentralized management to public education, and allow parents to select schools instead of being assigned to them. Since 1996 when its charter-school funding began, Walton has given grants to fully one out of every four charter-school startups in the U.S. The foundation has also been a crucial supporter of organizations that help charters find buildings, organizations that raise standards of charter-school performance, and organizations that monitor and enforce charter quality.
The Walton Foundation’s focus on helping charters flourish—and on encouraging school choice generally, and bold educational reform as a whole—has made it the national leader in bringing excellence and choice to families in neighborhoods that have been poorly served by conventional schools. Walton’s total giving to education reform exceeds a billion dollars, with the pace accelerating in the past few years, and the funding heavily focused on low-income and minority children.
- Duke case study, cspcs.sanford.duke.edu/sites/default/files/descriptive/charter_schools_funding.pdf
- New York Times report, nytimes.com/2014/04/26/us/a-walmart-fortune-spreading-charter-schools.html