In 2005, the school choice movement lost one of its leading champions when John T. Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart retailing fortune, died in a plane crash at age 58.
Advocates of expanded educational options say Mr. Walton, more than anyone else, was the driving force behind the Walton Family Foundation’s education work, and its focus on promoting school choice, from public charter schools to private school vouchers.
“He provided the passion and the direction in the early years for the foundation,” said Clint R. Bolick, a longtime school choice lawyer. “John was the most passionate reformer I’ve ever met, and certainly the most unassuming billionaire I’ve ever met.”
Mr. Walton—one of four children born to Helen and Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart—took a hands-on approach to philanthropy. He met often with other funders, education advocates, and politicians to advance the choice agenda. He sat on the boards of groups such as the California Charter Schools Association and the Washington-based Alliance for School Choice, both of which he and the foundation helped create.
Howard L. Fuller, an education professor at Marquette University and a leading proponent of school choice, said Mr. Walton was distressed about the inadequate education so many U.S. children receive. “He really did care deeply about the plight of low-income students,” said Mr. Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools. “And though it doesn’t fit with the conspiratorial theories, ... he wasn’t anti-public education. He was for quality and choice, and he put his money where his mouth was.”
Beyond his foundation work, Mr. Walton separately donated heavily to promote vouchers and charters, backing political action committees, candidates, and ballot initiatives. In 1998, he and New York financier Theodore J. Forstmann each contributed $50 million to launch the nonprofit Children’s Scholarship Fund, which helps low-income families pay private school tuition.
Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports school choice, said that he and others had worried what Mr. Walton’s death might mean for the Walton Foundation’s focus on choice.
“The question was, without him, whether they would continue with the same spirit and generosity,” Mr. Finn said. “As best I can tell, it has absolutely continued in the way John would have wanted it to.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Sam Walton’s Son Played Major Role In Setting Agenda On School Choice