BLOG: School Choice Week & John Walton

This is School Choice Week—an event that celebrates the movement that has been advocating for decades to expand the rights of families to choose their children’s schools.

I’m a full-time education reformer, so for me, the other 51 weeks are also times for rejoicing whenever families get more school options or find a good fit for their children. I also spend those weeks despairing that we continue to tolerate having tens of millions of students fall short of their potential, mostly because they are trapped in ill-fitting schools. 

School Choice Week is the one week where I shift my focus and instead reflect on the leaders of the education reform movement. These are the hundreds of people who confront our flawed education system and work to change it. They help create school choices in nearly every community across the country. It’s my privilege to know many of them, and I am grateful to all of them. 

And, every year, I find myself being especially grateful for one humble man, John T. Walton. 

Unless you were active in the education reform movement 20 years ago, you’ve probably never heard of John. He was killed tragically in June 2005, when he was 58 years old. If you believe in fixing our system, it’s worth your knowing about him, his leadership, and his counsel. 

John’s parents were Helen and Sam Walton, the entrepreneurial phenom who grew one five-and-dime store into America’s largest employer and corporation, Walmart. John and his siblings were never defined by this; it was just part of their lives. For John, it brought more opportunities and responsibilities than normal, but he took it all in stride. 

After “Mr. Sam’s” death in 1992, John and his siblings were entrusted with one of the world’s largest fortunes. John took the lead in thinking about how his family might leverage philanthropy to change America for the better. 

In some ways, it is not remarkable that John’s family landed on education reform as key to our future. Several other philanthropists who emerged during the 1990s – Bill Gates, Don Fisher, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, among others – all came to the same conclusion: our K-12 system had to be improved dramatically if America is going to thrive in our dynamic global economy. Plus, education was much more than a cold issue of productivity and global competitiveness. John was moved by the individual consequences of getting poorly educated, especially for those in our low-income communities. John understood these consequences all too well because of his childhood in Arkansas, his military service in Vietnam, and just being open to people from all walks of life. 

The Walton family’s financial generosity has been critical to education reform, but the money doesn’t capture a fraction of John’s contributions. John studied our system deeply and saw things that others miss, often to this day. For this piece, two points seem particularly relevant. 

Early on, John understood that many adults who work in and around public schools would resist the needed changes – namely, transparency around performance, innovation around delivery, and choice among many options. To me, he seemed unwavering in his belief that union leaders and others care about children as much as the rest of us, but he also recognized they lacked incentives to do the right thing. The system provides millions of jobs and enormous power to a few well-positioned people. And, as his friend Howard Fuller would point out, no one relinquishes power without a fight. 

Somehow, John also knew the resistance would become increasingly ruthless. He would not be surprised that some opponents have been willing to use children as pawns in their battles. He would not be surprised by the vilification campaigns against individuals who challenge the status quo. His counsel would be to fight, but fight fair. Their tactics will eventually backfire. 

John also expected the resistance would slow our progress, and he reasoned that slow and steady gains could be healthy. This work is hard and complex. He knew how hard it is to run an excellent school, especially in low-income communities. He knew how hard it is to enact a good law and implement a strong program. The constant experiments and incremental progress should allow us to learn to do such hard work better. That said, it pained him to know that many students were trapped in schools they wanted to escape. He hoped and pushed for quicker progress. 

John envisioned a very different system than today’s industrial model. He imagined a dynamic system that was focused on meeting the needs of each, singular child. His system would empower entrepreneurs at every level to innovate. It would empower more teachers to choose jobs that best fit their passions and gifts. And, it would empower parents to choose their schools and hold institutions accountable. In fact, the only people who would not be more empowered are those who hold most of the power today. 

No one knows what John Walton would think about the current state of the school-choice movement. But there are two things I’m most certain about. First, he’d think we are still a long, long way from the achieving the education system our children need and deserve. We should celebrate our progress this week, but then get back to the slow, hard work of reforming our system. 

Second, he would be pleased and grateful, like me, to see so many leaders stepping up to confront the system’s flaws and work for change. With such leadership, we will ultimately prevail, and our students will be the beneficiaries. 

Jim Blew
Co-founder, DFI