John Walton was killed yesterday in Wyoming while flying an ultra-light plane. It’s obviously important economic news, he was one of the wealthiest people in the world and Wal-Mart, love it or hate it, is a major economic force. It’s also educational news.
Walton was very committed to parental choice in education, vouchers and charter schools. In fact, the growth of charters over the past fifteen years owes a great deal to two leaders from Arkansas. Bill Clinton broadened support for charters and the federal charter legislation he signed gave essential start-up funds to many schools. Walton’s foundation supported hundreds of charters across the country and helped numerous charter schools secure facilities and expand.
There will probably be caricatures of Walton in the coming days because of his support for vouchers and the lightning rod that Wal-Mart is. That’s a disservice to a complicated person. PPI’s education work was not financially supported by the Walton Foundation and we parted ways with Walton over the efficacy of school vouchers. But, it’s worth pointing out that Walton’s support for vouchers was the right kind of support in the sense that he had a well-developed idea of progress and how he saw vouchers fitting into that. In other words, he wasn’t a hater like too many on both sides. He was a listener, refreshingly low-key, and knew how to agree to disagree, an increasingly lost art.
So, the educational world is poorer for his loss. He put his money where his mouth was and enlivened the debate about a vital social policy problem of our day. His service in Vietnam (volunteering as a special forces medic) and his philanthropy (which it should be noted went far beyond education, for instance as a seven figure patron of the National Museum for Women in the Arts and the Clinton Foundation, support for various health and women’s issues, and numerous projects around Arkansas) show his sense of obligation to others. Agree or disagree about vouchers, it’s hard to quibble with a life lived like that.