Big Box: How the Heirs of the Wal-Mart Fortune Have Fueled the Charter School Movement

Commentary | November 7, 2006
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The charter school movement has grown from a single school in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992 to more than 4,000 schools educating nearly a million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Charter schools have created choices for parents and competition for traditional public schools. They have led to instances of excellence and innovation, but also malfeasance and failure, to both hope and frustration.

The opportunity to operate publicly funded charter schools beyond the reach of union rules and school district regulations has attracted museums, settlement houses, universities, churches, YMCAs, other nonprofit organizations and a host of entrepreneurs to the elementary and secondary education arena and redefined public schooling in the process.

Fourteen years after St. Paul's City Academy opened its doors, it is increasingly clear that the charter school movement has permanently altered the educational landscape of a growing number of American cities. But many would no doubt be surprised to learn that the founding family of Wal-Mart has played a central role in this education revolution. The Waltons—heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune and the country's richest family—have quietly become top philanthropists in education reform, especially charter schooling.

Since its creation in 1962, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has produced a fortune of more than $90 billion for founder Sam Walton, his wife and four children. Five years before his death in 1987, Walton used some of that money to establish the Walton Family Foundation in order to pursue a range of philanthropic interests, from the economic development of the Mississippi Delta to the restoration of marine and fresh water ecosystems.

But under the leadership of his son John Walton, who was committed to improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, the foundation became a champion of education. In 1998, the Walton Family Foundation was funding its education agenda at $4.7 million. By 2004, the foundation gave two-thirds of its $101 million in grants—$66 million—to K–12 schooling, outpacing the educational philanthropy of Ford, Carnegie, Kellogg and other venerable foundations. Only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave more to K–12 education.

Although the Walton foundation devotes some resources to traditional school districts, most of its giving supports school choice, from charter schools to private school vouchers and tuition tax credits, because of John Walton's belief that “empowering parents to choose among competing schools will catalyze improvement across the entire K–12 education system.”

Walton money helped fund the legal defense of the Cleveland, Ohio, school voucher program that permits low-income students to attend private and parochial schools at public expense that was upheld in a landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case. It has funded grassroots political campaigns to establish and expand voucher programs in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and other cities. It has funded researchers sympathetic to school vouchers. Before he died in a plane crash in 2005, John Walton had become one of the nation's leading private funders of school choice initiatives. In 1998, Walton and Wall Street financier Theodore Forstmann made $50 million personal contributions to create a Children's Scholarship Fund that has provided grants to help pay private-school tuition for 70,000 low-income students, and he contributed $2 million to an unsuccessful voucher initiative in Michigan in 2000.

But most of the foundation's largesse in education—80 percent or some $50 million a year—supports charter schooling. That money has been instrumental to the expansion of the charter school sector. “Walton money has played a strategic role in the charter school movement at a critical point in its development, helping to increase the number of schools, build an advocacy support network, and fund supportive research,” says Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who is writing a book about the politics of charter schooling, and who is one of the few charter school experts in the nation who does not receive funding from the Walton Family Foundation.

Charter schooling has been contentious from the start, and Wal-Mart has been dogged by its own controversies, so Walton's promotion of charter schooling has intensified the debate about it. “Some critics argue that this is the beginning of the ‘Wal-Martization' of education, and a move to for-profit schooling, from which the family could potentially financially benefit,” explains a National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report.”

The Walton Family Foundation's impact can be seen throughout the charter sector. The foundation has funded hundreds of new individual charter schools, a number of charter school management companies, an array of national, state, and local charter advocacy organizations, numerous technical-assistance organizations, and a wide range of charter school research. Says Jim Blew, director of the Walton Family Foundation's elementary and secondary education program: “We're interested in creating options for kids who are trapped in failing schools, many of whom are disadvantaged.”

Blew and his colleagues have not pursued the traditional philanthropic strategy of simply funding the best proposals that come through the foundation's door. Rather, Walton, in collaboration with several other newer foundations in education, including the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation and the San Francisco-based Pisces Foundation, has actively promoted the creation of new organizations to promote school reform, conceptualizing the organizations and seeking out people to run them—a strategy that Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has dubbed “muscular philanthropy.”

The foundation's charter school financing has also led others to contribute to the charter cause. Walton funding “was a catalyst for others to give,” Donald Fisher, the billionaire founder of the Gap retail empire and an active charter school philanthropist who contributes heavily to the KIPP charter school network, told Philanthropy magazine in 2005.

This Education Sector Connecting the Dots report examines the many ways the Walton family has funded the charter school movement.