September 22, 2005

September 22, 2005 | Commentary on Education

John Walton's Real Legacy

America's largest teachers union recently joined the "Wake Up Wal-Mart" campaign, organized by labor unions to urge shoppers to boycott the retailer.

The campaign is meant to protest how Wal-Mart prevented its employees from unionizing. But the National Education Association joined it to protest a different Wal-Mart sin -- "the anti-public education activities of founder Sam Walton's family."

Yet, the Walton family is among the nation's most generous donors to education charities. Sam Walton's second son, John, was the driving force behind the Walton family's education philanthropy before he died when an experimental plane he was flying crashed in June. A former medic in the Green Berets who earned a Silver Star for saving lives in Vietnam, John left a lasting legacy of advocating for better education opportunities for America's most needy children.

The Walton family has donated more than $700 million to various education initiatives since 1998. In 2002, the family gave $300 million to the University of Arkansas. But what draws the ire of the NEA is the family's support for charter schools, private scholarships programs and organizations that advocate for school-choice reforms.

In 1998, John Walton joined with Ted Forstmann to pledge $50 million to create the Children's Scholarship Fund, a charity that offers tuition assistance for disadvantaged students, kindergarten through high school. More than a million low-income families applied for scholarships during the program's first year, and more than 67,000 students have received aid through the program.

But John Walton's legacy extends beyond giving direct help for thousands of American families. His support has helped launch the national school-choice movement that's revolutionizing the way Americans view their schools.

Fifteen years ago, the concept of school choice was largely ignored. Today, much to the dismay of the NEA and other defenders of the status quo, school choice is becoming a common practice for American families. Today, some 3,400 public charter schools serve nearly a million students. Twelve states have publicly funded programs such as vouchers or education tax credits that help parents choose their children's school. Across America, the principle that parents should have the freedom to determine how their children are educated has gained enormous support. This year alone, school-choice programs were expanded or created in six states.

This momentum is being spurred by mounting evidence of the positive effect that school-choice programs have on America's school children. Studies show that parents become more satisfied with their children's educational experience when they choose their school. Participation in school-choice programs, such as private scholarships and voucher programs, has been linked to higher test scores for disadvantaged students.

It's not just the students who participate in these programs who benefit. Harvard University researchers have found that traditional public schools improve when they are exposed to competition, an important reform benefit that John Walton envisioned. "I have tremendous faith in the public system," he said in 2003. "I'm disturbed when people who claim to support public education have zero confidence our public schools can deliver. I'm convinced they can."

The teachers unions can charge that the Walton family's philanthropy is "anti-public education." But John Walton was a supporter of public education in the most basic sense of the term. He believed that every single American child deserves an equal chance at a quality education, whether that education is delivered in a public, private or charter school. For John Walton, giving parents the power to choose their child's school was the best way to ensure equal access to a quality education.

Fairness and equality motivated John Walton and the Walton family's philanthropy. "No other part of American society is as important," he said to Business Week in 2002. "We think that it's tragic to have a country where everyone is equal under the law but everyone doesn't have equal opportunities to secure the most important asset ever, which is a good education."

John Walton's legacy lives on. It lives in the hundreds of thousands of students who enjoy better lives today thanks to the Walton family's generosity. And it will live in a reform movement that continues to work to make his vision of equal opportunity a reality for every American child.

Sorry, NEA. But perhaps it is you who needs to wake up.


Dan Lips is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Dan Lips Senior Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies