Where will John Walton's money go now?

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

So, John Walton died on Monday - when his experimental ultralight plane dropped out of the sky.

An heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, he was the 11th richest guy in the world with over $18 billion. Why should you pay attention right about now?

Answer: He was also the biggest donor in America to political campaigns that supported school voucher programs and worked for years to undermine the public education system. Heck, he once spent $100,000 in a single school board race in San Diego - just because the incumbent didn't like his idea of 'reform'.

From a 2004 profile in Fortune magazine:

For now, the great bulk of that [spending] goes to what John calls school reform, an umbrella term that refers to a controversial variety of programs—vouchers and charter schools, for instance—that aim at providing families with freedom and funding to pick schools, public or private, that they believe best suit their children.

Critics say these efforts undermine public schools, but John contends that it is the only way to effect change. "Education is a $700-plus-billion-a-year industry," John says. "By additive and incremental spending you are not going to move that environment. We aren't trying to change public schools, we are trying to change the education environment so that public schools have to change for the better."

It's not surprising that the drive for this kind of school reform often comes from businesspeople, because, as most would freely acknowledge, the purpose really is to introduce competition to the primary education process. To some, this sounds like the successful businessman who's just bought a professional sports franchise and pledges to apply the rational rules of business to sport. Lots of luck.

As a blog in DC puts it:

John Walton was the single biggest benefactor to the GOP-led movement to gut America's public education system by advocating charter schools, vouchers private scholarships -- anything except improve public education. The vast majority of Walton Family Foundation grants went to these sort of "education reform" causes.

John also was also a major campaign contributor to pro-voucher/charter school/"school choice" candidates at the state level throughout the country. He funded thousands of such candidates, giving the maximum limit allowed by state law in almost all cases.

So far, there's been no news coverage of what might happen to his money. Likely, most of the money will go to his wife and son - but it wouldn't be surprising if a huge chunk gets used to create some sort of organization or political fund to support school vouchers.

A lot of public education advocates have worried for years that the day would come that John Walton would decide to drop serious billions into his idea of education 'reform'.

Now, much too soon and through his untimely death, that day may be here. What happens next?

  • Gregor (unverified)

    I can only loathe the Waltons the more for seeking to destroy the schools from which they must get 99% of their work force, and from which 98% of their customers have their educational origins. This is something that should be broadcast by the Democrats NOW to enable the customers to be educated and perhaps they might make another choice about where they shop. 11th in the world?!? So there are oil barons who are making less money then he did, based solely on exploiting the workers from China and the US. It's disgusting!

  • Bill Holmer (unverified)

    Let's pray the John Walton heirs are even more fervent in their support for alternatives to the monopolistic stranglehold that the NEA, and the politicians it bankrolls, have on our deteriorating public schools. However, there will only be $10 billion, or so, left after Uncle Sam takes his cut.

  • (Show?)

    I would not be so quick to reject school vouchers. The research results thus far are mixed, neither rejecting vouchers as a way to improve schools, educational outcomes, and provide parental choice; nor accepting them as a remedy.

    To briefly summarize a recent review (Kevin Smith, "Data Don't Matter? Academic Research and School Choice", Perspectives on Politics June 2005, 285-299):

    • Does school choice improve student achievement? The conclusions are mixed--there are not studies that show consistent improvement nor erosion. At best, research seems to indicate "very modest" gains. More and better controlled research is needed.
    • Does choice increase parental satisfaction? Yes, studies consistently report higher satisfaction levels.
    • Does choice increase equality of educ. opportunity? This depends on your benchmark. The Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher families tend to be "overwhelmingly minority." Simply allowing an exit option for these families is, Smith argues, a very low benchmark for success. How universal choice would impact educational opportunity is unknown at this time.
    • Does choice improve the overall quality of public schools? Again, a mixed bag. Some reports find a weak positive correlation between competition and efficienty, teacher wages, future earnings, and housing prices. In general, the results are so modest that some question whether it is worth the political and economic costs.
    • Does choice promote segregation? "Even pro choice theorists concede that programs ... can produce ... segregated schools." Also, "the evidence is fairly unequivocal that, if allowed to participate, religiously affiliated schools will play a large role ..."

    I can send along a PDF to anyone who might be interested.

  • Peter Graven (unverified)

    If school choice is not zero-sum (which could take a grad student months to decipher from the data, much less a parent), don't you have to believe that either segregation/specialization is good in its own right or that the labor market (teachers) is flexible enough for management style carrots and sticks by the administration?

    My apologies for the tangent. I hope Walton's money goes to something good.

  • (Show?)

    Nice post, Kari. You wouldn't know from the various televisual and audio eulogies that Walton was anything but a great big philanthropist. He was painted by NPR as something close to a saint. (Give me $18 billion, and I'll start handing out vast wads of cash, too.) A few thoughts.

    Likely, most of the money will go to his wife and son...

    This is why the estate tax existed. No one on earth deserves an $18b windfall. I imagine the family could get by on as little as two or three. But Bush and Co. (the Co. here being other top 1 percenters) feel that's stealing from the heirs. He's got such a big heart.

    Paul, I don't know that this issue is vouchers or not. From my way of thinking, anyone who brings billions to bear on a political issue through extra-democratic means should be watched closely. If vouchers are the best public policy, they should be able to find support on their own merit, rather than because a billionaire supports them.

  • McBain (unverified)

    Hey Bill Holmer -

    I assume that you were referencing the estate tax with your "$10 million after the government gets its cut" line. But, think about this - how did John Walton get his wealth? Perhaps he inherited it? Each of the Walton heirs is worth $18 billion - family fortune of $90 billion. So, yeah I think his heirs should pay the estate tax. I also don't believe that the tax rate has jumped that much under W, so don't worry about his poor family getting stuck with only $10 million. They'll still have more money than the 2 year general fund dollars for our state.

  • (Show?)


    I agree, though I wonder if we are as quick to criticize billionares who support efforts that we agree with (Soros coes to mind).

    What I obected to was the implication that vouuchers are a endrun attempt to destroy public schools. What if we find that vouchers will in fact reinvigorate our public school system? shouldn't we laud wealthy philanthropists who support voucher programs?

    I suspect that Walton is not supporting scholarship but advocacy, and for that he should be rightly criticized.

  • (Show?)


    I don't think it's an implication, it's the core purpose of the advocates: Vouchers are designed to be a highly popular method of ending public education.

    Period. End of story.

    If the voucher-people discover that they in fact strengthen and boost public education, then they will quickly abandon vouchers and find another means to their stated ends.

    The end of public education is a core value of the extreme right in America - and they've been working on it for decades.

    For details and history (including at least one PhD dissertation), go here, here, here (mid-way down), here (#2), and the mothership is here.

  • Bill Holmer (unverified)


    Actually, I think the federal estate tax is a good idea, although probably at a lower level than the current rate of 47% (down from 50% in 2002). All I was pointing out was that Kari doesn't have to worry about all $18 billion being spent in support of alternatives to public education.

  • McBain (unverified)

    Mr. Holmer,

    Fair enough, I really don't agree with you on the estate tax (rate or, presumably state estate tax) but I just think that the hyperbole could be checked at the door.

    Also, to blame the NEA for the problems that exist in public education is unfair. While teachers do have repsonsibility for much of what happens when the classroom doo closes, many other groups impact the structure, funding formulas, and environment that children live and learn in.

    Saying that the NEA is the problem with public education is like saying that the NRA is the problem with gun violence.

connect with blueoregon