John Walton’s Legacy Provides Solid Foundation for School Choice Efforts

Published September 1, 2005

John Walton, who passed away at age 58 in a plane crash in June, was an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune and one of the wealthiest people in the world. He also was a champion of children in a noble cause that should inspire others to join the ranks and motivate legislators to launch much-needed reforms.

As a wealthy man, Walton enjoyed many choices in his life. He wanted children and their parents to have an important choice currently denied them by the government education monopoly–the freedom to choose where they go to school.

Scholarship Program Established

In 1998, Walton co-founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) to provide tuition assistance to low-income families. In the program’s first year, nearly 1.25 million applications flooded in from more than 20,000 communities nationwide. Those numbers confirm low-income families remain dissatisfied with government schools, and that they are willing to make sacrifices to better their children’s futures.

The scholarships pay, on average, 50 percent of the child’s tuition. For many parents, that is enough. They are overjoyed someone is striving to help them, and they willingly make up the other 50 percent. More than 67,000 children have benefitted from CSF to date, and more than 23,000 children currently are using CSF scholarships.

Parents in the program overwhelmingly choose non-government schools because they perceive such schools are more attentive to their children’s needs. In the government system, education bureaucrats dictate which schools children must attend.

If parents opt out, their tax money does not go with them, but funds the system they chose to leave because of its failures. Many children remain trapped in dangerous inner-city schools that do little more than warehouse students.

Vouchers Change System

Walton supported voucher programs that would change the status quo–programs that would channel government funding to the student rather than a school system or particular institution. This is the model used in higher education and programs such as the G.I. Bill, food stamps, and housing programs that do not oblige low-income recipients to shop in government stores or live in government buildings.

Under school voucher programs, the dollar follows the scholar, not the education establishment. That establishment opposes parental choice in K-12 education because choice forces schools to compete and improve, or face losing students. With captive clients, the system can maintain mediocrity. Its funding is not tied to performance.

With their vast taxpayer-funded clout, educrats and teacher unions have been able to defeat most voucher campaigns. But Walton, a decorated Vietnam veteran who served as a medic with the Green Berets, did not let a reactionary establishment stop him. CSF’s advisory board includes a host of like-minded people of diverse political persuasions.

More Contributors Needed

CSF will carry on, but John Walton will be missed. Others of similar means should step up to fill the ranks, helping children toward a brighter future. For their part, legislators should apply the lesson Walton learned.

Demand for parental choice in education remains huge, particularly with low-income families. Dissatisfaction with the educational status quo also runs high.

Choice is the wave of the future. Limited voucher programs, really a form of scholarships or grants, now function in the District of Columbia, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Others will surely follow.

There is no longer any legal reason to oppose choice–only political reasons, and these are not sufficient. Walton recognized children’s futures are more important. Legislators in all states should establish full parental choice in K-12 education for all families, as a matter of basic civil rights.

K. Lloyd Billingsley ([email protected]) is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute, a public policy think tank in San Francisco.