Meet the Innovators Who Launched a School Revolution
In his new book, “The Founders,” journalist and author Richard Whitmire takes readers behind the curtain, sharing the story of the quest to create high-quality educational opportunities for America’s most disadvantaged students. The book is a look back at important, recent, and little known history — including the Walton Family Foundation’s role in shaping the high-quality public charter school movement.
With permission from The 74 Media, which is publishing the book, we are excerpting the chapter on the Walton Family Foundation’s role in the history of high-quality charter schools below. We encourage readers to visit The 74 to download the full book for free.
Philanthropists as Education Activists: Walton Family Foundation
Everyone agrees that the Walton Family Foundation is the heavy hitter of charter philanthropists, plowing roughly $165 million a year into the school-choice movement. Less is known about why the family settled on that campaign.
Answering that question starts with the late John Walton, son of fabled Walmart founder Sam Walton. John Walton, who never entered the family business, dropped out of college to join the Army (and won a Silver Star for his combat service in Vietnam). He was always looking for ways to “give back,” said his niece Carrie Walton Penner, who today is an education advocate on the family foundation.
Spurred by 1983’s famous “A Nation at Risk” report, John settled on education as the pathway to open up the American dream to others. “John started educating himself and educating us alongside,” said Carrie. “Our concerns were the big national areas where we could potentially have an impact.”
The format for debating family policy was the annual meeting at Sam’s house in Bentonville, Arkansas, a Fay Jones–designed home not far from the heart of Bentonville. “It was casual back then,” recalls Carrie. “We would sit around on the sofas and the floor and talk about business and philanthropy.” These were family-only meetings. “It would have been my grandparents, their four children and three spouses and grandkids.”
In March 1992, then–Education Secretary Lamar Alexander accepted an invitation from John to speak at a Walton family meeting, mostly to talk about the department’s America 2000 program, which was cast as a nine-year effort to revitalize schools.
The controversial parts of Alexander’s program: voluntary national exams and vouchers. Said Alexander to the press at the time: The traditional school system, in which children are assigned schools, is “coercive” and contradicts the American right to choose.
Alexander made an impression on the Walton family, leading them to think national. The family never looked back.
John, who was then living in San Diego, had a less than satisfactory experience as a donor working with the traditional schools there. And he had befriended Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, who was a school-choice advocate even before he took the job as superintendent. To them, pursuing school choice made sense. Together, Walton and Fuller explored choice options, first vouchers and later charter schools.
Fuller first met Walton while they were serving together at a school-reform advocacy organization. Fuller recalls asking Walton why he got so involved in education issues. “He told me the poor people in this country are getting screwed and I’m in a position to do something about it.” The choice movement appealed to Walton, said Fuller, because it “empowered” low-income and working-class families. “What John saw as unacceptable was that low income families didn’t have the financial means to move to a different district or pay for private school,” said Carrie. “He believed every family should have those choices.”
And there were other reasons, said Fuller: “He also had views about the value of competition and the inherent difficulty of changing bureaucracies from within, without any pressure coming from the outside.”
The Walton charter grants started in 1997 and went initially to four schools: three in Boston, one in Illinois. The next year, 94 charter schools were funded. By 1999, the foundation backed 113 charters. The typical grant was $250,000 for startup costs, thus helping with the biggest problem for any new charter, which receives no funding until the first students arrive.
In 2002, the foundation invested in NewSchools Venture Fund. Then in 2005, John Walton and Gap co-founder Don Fisher collaborated to launch the Charter School Growth Fund, a group with a focused goal: Scale with quality.
In addition to funding charter startups, Walton also supports groups such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, Families for Excellent Schools and Democrats for Education Reform. Other beneficiaries: the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University and the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).
Over the years the grants became far more sophisticated, and in 2015 Walton zeroed in on certain cities where the conditions for charter growth seemed ripe. The chosen cities: Atlanta, Boston, Camden, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, New York, Oakland, San Antonio and Washington, D.C.
Explained Marc Sternberg, who oversees Walton’s education programs: “The idea was to concentrate where the policy environment was good. This work is hard even in the best of circumstances, so we need to concentrate the work in the policy environments that are most conducive to quality at scale.”
That meant dropping some cities, such as Milwaukee, Phoenix, Chicago and Albany. In Milwaukee, for example, attempts to bring in top charters to jump-start a moribund school-choice movement have proved difficult. This is something I saw repeatedly on the ground when I followed Rocketship charters as they opened their first charter there (more on that story later).
The news hit hard in Milwaukee. “Fifteen years ago, Milwaukee was called by some ‘ground zero’ for school reform. Now, you rarely see national attention to Milwaukee education, at least not for positive reasons,” wrote local education commentator Alan Borsuk. “The Walton decision underscores that.”
What happened in Milwaukee? My sense from reporting the Rocketship book: The voucher program there has been popular but has failed to transform the district, thus dulling families’ appetites for school innovation while simultaneously sharpening hostility from unions and traditional educators. Charter innovators find little fertile ground.
Although Milwaukee school reformers were devastated, the shift by Walton matched a shift by all the major charter funders to focus only on schools that can scale with quality and cities that will allow that to happen. What’s interesting about the entire portfolio of Walton grants, though, is the willingness to fund fresh charters, not just CMO replications.
Their reasoning: It’s a simple math problem. Based on the need for “high quality” school seats — possibly as many as 10 million — between a third and a half will have to come from new providers. Existing high-performing CMOs can’t meet that goal. Thus the need to develop new KIPPs, new Uncommons, new Aspires.
In the history of how the top performers developed, Walton plays a starring role, which in turn gives the family a starring villain’s role (as seen in the “Cashing In on Kids” paper from the American Federation of Teachers) with the charter critics who assume the family embraces non-union charters because Walmart itself is non-union. That story line is a staple in progressive left publications such as Salon. But is the Walton story really that simple? It doesn’t appear so.