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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

The more than $390 million the family has spent in Arkansas since 1998 has been spread around to a variety of programs.

The greatest single donation was a $300
million pledge from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to
the University of Arkansas in 2002 — a gift the university believes is
still the largest ever to a college in the United States.

Two-thirds of that went to endow the
undergraduate Honors College — paying for full-ride scholarship
packages for 600 of the state’s brightest students.

The remaining $100 million went to the
graduate school: $64 million was used to provide or increase stipends
for graduate students, $24 million went to endow eight new faculty
positions, and the remainder went to library and research resources.

Walton money also paid for half the
cost of establishing the UA’s Department of Education Reform and hiring
Greene. The Manhattan Institute, where he was a fellow, is a
conservative think-tank and a strong supporter of “reform” measures
like charter schools and vouchers.

The department conducts research on
education reform projects — including initiatives also funded by the
Walton Family Foundation, a situation that, the researchers’ claims of
objectivity notwithstanding, has raised questions with some critics in
the state’s education community.

For instance, the department has
released two studies of pilot merit-pay programs in Little Rock, one of
which was partly funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Both reports
concluded that the programs were a modest success, despite the fact
that several of the schools involved wound up on the state’s
school-improvement list for their low test scores.

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Gary Ritter, a lead researcher in the
department, is adamant that he and his colleagues are not pressured by
the Waltons or the Walton Family Foundation to produce studies
flattering to the programs they fund. He doesn’t see a conflict of
interest, he said, because the Walton Family Foundation only funds —
but doesn’t run — the programs it wants evaluated.

“It only seems like common sense to
me,” he said. “If I’m a foundation I’m answerable to the people who are
giving me money, those people who are giving me money likely want to
know it’s spent effectively.”

Ritter pointed out that his department
has also done studies with conclusions that weren’t popular with
business-oriented education activists like the Waltons — most notably
the Arkansas School Performance Index, which rated schools statewide
while taking into account characteristics like the percentage of
low-income students and concluded that some “low-performing” schools
were actually doing a better job than some that produced higher test
scores.

“Some in the business community derided
that report as giving excuses for poor performance,” Ritter said. “…
But we received no phone call from the big mean funder that said ‘You
shouldn’t have done that.’ ”

Still, there is plenty of suspicion about the department in some education circles.

“I have a great deal of concern about
the Department of Education Reform,” said the AEA’s Marzoni. “We don’t
feel that it’s an honest research-based organization. We feel like it
has an agenda and it’s doing its research and it’s leaning toward their
already pre-conceived notions.”

In 2006, the Walton Family Foundation
proposed a district-wide merit pay pilot program in Little Rock, which
it would have both funded and paid to have evaluated by the Department
of Education Reform. Little Rock teachers rejected the plan here; in
Rogers, the school board ultimately rejected a different merit-pay
proposal from the foundation that would have also included an
evaluation by the education reform department.

While both those proposals were rejected, the Waltons had more success promoting merit pay at the state level.

Jim Walton is the primary funder of
Arkansans for Education Reform and Arkansans for Better Schools, twin
organizations whose sole employee is former State Board of Education
member Luke Gordy and whose sole purpose is to lobby for causes like
charter schools and merit pay at the state level.

In the 2007 legislative session, Gordy
worked to get a bill passed that authorized school districts to use
state tax money for merit-pay programs. The final bill was a
hard-fought compromise that brought business interests together with
the Arkansas Education Association to create rules that limited how the
programs could work. Districts had to apply to the state Department of
Education for approval; only one district and two individual schools
had done so by the March 8 deadline.

Gordy has worked both in the
legislature and in the business community to advance issues close to
the Waltons’ heart. In 2005, he spearheaded a successful effort to
change the state’s standardized testing system to what’s called an
augmented criterion-referenced test — basically, the state’s existing
Benchmark exams, which tests Arkansas’s curriculum, “augmented” by
questions from a national standardized test that will show how Arkansas
students compare to students in other states. The change was put into
place shortly after the Department of Education had fully implemented
the un-augmented Benchmark exams, a still fairly new system. The first
augmented Benchmark exams will be given in April 2009.

In 2007, charter schools were at the
top of Gordy’s agenda. He lobbied for a change in the state’s charter
school law to raise the number of charters allowed from 12 to 24, and
to remove restrictions on how many charter schools could open in each
congressional district.

One thing that’s not on his agenda,
Gordy said, is taxpayer-funded vouchers to send low-income students to
private schools. It’s been a major focus of Walton giving nationwide,
but Gordy said he’s had “zero” conversations with his bosses about
vouchers in Arkansas, and doesn’t think he will anytime soon.

“Anything’s possible,” he said. “The
conversation could be started, but it’s going to be a long time before
that gets any traction in Arkansas.”

It’s hard to get a handle on just how
much money the Waltons sprinkle around the legislature — campaign
finance reports submitted to the Secretary of State’s office aren’t
searchable by donor, and each legislator submits multiple reports
during the course of each campaign.

One lawmaker who’s benefited from
Walton money, and who’s been a reliable friend on their education
priorities, is Steve Bryles, a Democrat from Blytheville.

Bryles got $4,000 from Walton
enterprises during the 2007 campaign: $2,000 from Jim Walton, $1,000
from Arvest Bank’s political action committee, and $1,000 from
Wal-Mart. Bryles led the effort to loosen the charter school laws, and
is supportive of other school choice issues, but said he’d feel the
same with or without those donations.

“I look for allies — I don’t care if
they’re left, right or in between,” he said. “If they can be supportive
of what I’ve outlined to you, then I’m going to latch onto them.”

But state Sen. Jim Argue, outgoing
chair of the Senate Education Committee, downplayed the Waltons’
influence on education issues in the legislature — especially compared
with the influence of the Supreme Court’s Lake View decision on school
financing.

“I don’t think it was the Waltons,” he
said. “We’ve had a tremendous six years in terms of school improvement,
but it was all spawned by the court decision in 2002.”

Besides lobbying for friendlier charter
school laws, the Waltons have provided crucial financial support
through the Walton Family Foundation to charter schools in Arkansas. It
provided about two-thirds of the initial $800,000 three-year pledge to
start the Arkansas Charter School Resource Center, whose director,
Caroline Proctor, helps would-be charter school administrators design
their schools, put together their applications, and progress through
the sometimes lengthy approval process before the state Board of
Education. After the resource center opened, charter school
applications jumped from one or two a year to more than a dozen.

The foundation also provides $10,000
planning grants to charter school applicants, and another $10,000 in
start-up money to schools that are approved. Once they’re up and
running, schools can also apply for much larger grants. LISA Academy,
for instance, has received more than $150,000 from the Walton Family
Foundation; the Arkansas Virtual School, the Benton County School of
the Arts and Haas Hall, a Farmington charter school that’s faced
serious financial problems, have all gotten $250,000. The foundation is
also supporting the e-STEM charter schools, set to open in July in
downtown Little Rock, although the amount hasn’t been made public.

In all, the Walton Family Foundation gave about $1.7 million to proposed and existing charter schools between 1998 and 2006.

Proctor said the money is vital for
charter schools — giving them necessary start-up funds, but not enough
to operate without other outside support.

“The amount is just perfect,” she said. “No school is going to survive forever on it but it’s enough to get somebody started.”

It’s impossible to talk about the issue
of charter schools in Arkansas without mentioning the state Board of
Education service of Naccaman Williams, who works for the Walton Family
Foundation on projects it supports in the Arkansas Delta region.

Williams, a former public school
teacher, insists that the Walton Family Foundation’s education agenda
has no influence on his decisions on the school board. He has voted to
approve some charter school applications, and to deny others, but is
generally among the more supportive members of the board on charter
school issues.

“The thing to do would be to take a
look at my record,” he said. “I’m a former public school teacher. I
support the public schools. Period. Charter schools are public schools.

“… As issues come before the board I
review the issues based upon their merits,” he said. “The key piece for
me will this be good for the kids of the state of Arkansas. No more, no
less.”

Traditional public schools have also
benefited from Walton Family Foundation money, particularly districts
in Northwest Arkansas. From 1998 through 2006 the foundation gave at
least $9.8 million to a couple dozen school districts, either directly
or channeled through private education foundations affiliated with the
districts (which has the effect of shielding the details from the
public). A $50,000 gift to the Little Rock Public Education Foundation
several years ago went to fund a pilot merit-pay program at a district
elementary school. Other gifts have been used to fund grants to
individual teachers, and to implement an assessment program that tests
students periodically throughout the school year. The foundation’s
biggest gifts have been to the Bentonville, Rogers and Fayetteville
school districts or their foundations.

At the college level, the Walton Family
Foundation gave at least $65 million to both public and private schools
statewide between 1998 and 2006, in addition to the $300 million pledge
to the UA. The foundation has supported the UA’s Chancellor’s
Scholarship program, and Harding University, John Brown University and
the University of the Ozarks all received between $11 million and $21
million for their Walton International Scholarship programs.

Another $4 million went to Single
Parent Scholarship Funds in Pulaski, Benton, Washington and Conway
counties, as well as the statewide fund. That program was recently
lauded by Gov. Mike Beebe as instrumental in raising the income level
of the single parents who earned college degrees with the help of the
fund.

The Walton Family Foundation has been the least generous with private schools, giving less than $200,000 between 1998 and 2006.

Although the majority of Walton giving
in Arkansas has gone to public schools or universities, that’s not
reflective of their priorities nationwide, where the bulk of donations
have gone to organizations that support alternatives to traditional
public schools — charter schools and private school vouchers.

But the Waltons’ support of traditional
public schools is evidence of a vital difference between the Walton
Family Foundation and other major conservative foundations, said Rick
Cohen, national correspondent for Non-Profit Quarterly magazine and the
former director of the Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Other conservative funders “seem to
believe that the public school system is to be avoided at all costs,
that it is in some way so toxic that it can not be worked with,” Cohen
said. “What the Waltons are saying is the public system is a reality
for the majority of kids — that no matter what amount of money you put
into private schools and vouchers, the vast majority of kids are going
to go to public schools for the foreseeable future. To try to create an
alternative that bypasses the public system is an exercise in futility.”

Finally, it’s tempting to say that what
the Waltons do with their own money is their business. But Cohen offers
a compelling argument that that’s not the case.

“What you have in philanthropy … is
people dealing with tax exempt money,” he said. “It would otherwise be
public money, but we’ve entrusted it to them to use in the public
interest. The public ought to take a good hard look at how
philanthropic money is being used, and what the results are.”