"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
For good or for ill, it's safe to say that the educational landscape in Arkansas would be drastically different today if Sam Walton hadn't been born in Bentonville.
The Waltons, individually and through their various family foundations, are by a large margin the largest donors to conservative education reform causes in the country. They've donated hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to educational causes nationwide, including the start-up funding that allowed the national private-school voucher movement to get off the ground more than a decade ago.
But they haven't neglected their home state. The two Walton family philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation and the Walton Charitable Support Foundation, gave at least $390 million to educational causes in Arkansas between 1998 and 2006, according to tax returns and the Walton Family Foundation's web site (2007 figures are not yet available publicly).
That doesn't count individual expenditures, such as the hundreds of thousands of dollars Jim Walton has spent to fund lobbying efforts on behalf of the conservative school reform causes originally championed by his late brother, John.
What's that much money bought? More charter schools, and a looser law to regulate them. Merit pay experiments in Little Rock. The University of Arkansas's Department of Education Reform and its nationally known chair, former Manhattan Institute scholar Jay Greene.
It's also gone toward a host of less controversial programs — most notably endowing the UA's undergraduate honors college, but also the state's Single Parent Scholarship Fund, major scholarship programs for international students at three private Arkansas colleges, and contributions to a number of the state's public school districts.
“They have given a great deal to the public schools in Arkansas, but they've also given a great deal more to anti-public school” causes, said Dan Marzoni, president of the Arkansas Education Association. “I'm kind of confused about what they're trying to accomplish.”
Jim Walton declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, and Kathy Smith, the education program officer at the Walton Family Foundation, did not return several phone calls. However, there's plenty to be learned just by looking at the numbers, and talking to other education activists in the state who've worked with the Waltons or their representatives over the years.
Education has always been a priority for the Walton family. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, for instance, founded the Walton International Scholarship program, which pays for students from South American countries to attend one of several private universities in Arkansas and was set up with the goal of counteracting the spread of communism on that continent.
Before his death in 2005, John Walton, one of Sam's four children, was a major leader in the school choice movement — charter schools and private-school voucher programs, in other words — nationwide. He gave $50 million in 1998 to help found the Children's Scholarship Fund, which helps low-income families in a number of cities (but not in Arkansas) pay to send their children to private schools. He also contributed substantial amounts to campaigns around the country to establish publicly funded voucher programs, with limited success.
The family's charitable foundations have maintained those priorities. In 2006, the Walton Family Foundation spent more than $92 million on K-12 education reform initiatives, including $55 million on charter schools and $27 million on private school scholarship and voucher programs.
The family's historic rationale has been that public schools will benefit from competition if all students — not just those from affluent homes — have choices other than their neighborhood public school.