The Carnegie of School Choice

Philanthropy magazine
by Joanne Jacobs
October 2005

Those who dispute the "Great Man" theory of history may have to reconsider their position. Philanthropy magazine's essay on the late John Walton's influence on school choice leaves little room for doubting that a single person can change the world. The tribute, ably and eloquently penned by Joanne Jacobs, includes a parade of examples showing how Walton and his family's foundation catapulted school choice from a good idea shared by a few people to a nationwide movement. Consider just two of these. Walton (and Ted Forstmann) underwrote scholarships for 40,000 American students through the Children's Scholarship Fund. When CSF was launched, more than 1.2 million people applied. "That was the beginning of a national debate," says Gisele Huff, because the overwhelming interest made it "impossible to ignore the desperation of parents whose children were in low-quality public schools." Another example: the quarter-million dollars that the Walton foundation provided to each of more than 500 charter schools. Says NewSchools Venture Fund head Kim Smith, "I don't know if we'd have a charter school movement without John Walton." Indeed. Walton also backed and helped to build a network of state and local advocacy organizations, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. But Jacobs does more than capture the dollars and cents side of Walton's impact on education; she also evokes his persona and character. "Before the tenth anniversary gala for the Center for Education Reform," she writes, "...Walton asked whether he needed to rent a tuxedo." Seems he didn't want to because whenever he wore one, "people treated him differently." He was "Just John," says Jacobs, to everyone who met him - including me. I had the pleasure of talking briefly with him at an event in San Diego. Though surrounded by dozens, when I called out, "Mr. Walton, can I take your photo for Philanthropy magazine?" he stopped and replied, "Sure, but just call me John." Fortunately for us all, Walton's "just" being John was more than enough. And because of him, today there are hundreds of thousands of school children receiving a better education.

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