John Walton was a war hero, entrepreneur and heir to the Walmart fortune who used his wealth to give at-risk students the power to leave failing public schools and pursue better education options.

For this work, in 2001 Walton became the first philanthropist to receive the Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership from Philanthropy Roundtable. Now named the Simon-DeVos Prize, the Prize highlights the values proven to strengthen communities and improve individual lives. Specifically, the Prize seeks to advance the principles of personal responsibility, resourcefulness, volunteerism, scholarship, individual freedom, faith in God, and helping people help themselves.

With nominations for the 2022 Prize open, we’re looking back at Walton, the inaugural winner, and his incredible philanthropic contributions to the school choice movement.

In his autobiography, Sam Walton, John’s father, called for an “all-out revolution in education” with a specific focus on helping students in poor inner-city and rural communities. John Walton led this effort and soon became one of the most influential advocates for school choice in the country.

“We think that it’s tragic to have a country where everyone is equal under the law, but everyone doesn’t have equal opportunities to secure the most important asset ever, which is a good education,” Walton once told Businessweek. “We want to help people who don’t have access [to a good education] and make education more broadly available.”

One of Walton’s first projects was the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which he co-founded in 1998 with fellow philanthropist Ted Forstmann. The pair offered 40,000 K-8 scholarships worth approximately $200 million to low-income students. With demand for the grants greater than the supply, Walton and Forstmann extended the program beyond its intended four-year run. To date, the fund has provided 191,500 students scholarships worth over $934 million.

That same year, the Walton Family Foundation funded 94 charter schools across the country. The foundation also helped launch the New Schools Fund and the Charter School Growth Fund to scale successful charter models that were having the greatest impact. 

Since its first charter school grant, the Walton Family Foundation has given more than $386 million in grants, helping to create more than 2,100 charter schools and serving more than 840,000 students nationwide. 

To help ensure the high quality of charter schools across the country, the foundation launched the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, while also supporting teacher training programs.

Walton understood the success of charter schools was tied to public policies that supported their growth and expansion. In partnership with Bill Oberndorf, who befittingly became the 2021 recipient of the Simon-DeVos Prize two decades later, Walton helped start the American Federation for Children, an organization that works to elect education reformers, pass education reforms and empower parents in their children’s education.

“When the committee met to decide the first recipient of the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, it was a short discussion,” recalled Bill Simon, Jr., co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation. “John Walton’s leadership in empowering parents to make decisions around their children’s education made him the clear frontrunner. John’s generosity in providing scholarships and working to further school choice is still inspiring us today.”

Each year, the Prize honors a living philanthropist who has shown exemplary leadership through charitable giving with a $200,000 award, which is payable to the winner’s charitable organization of choice. Nominations for the Simon-DeVos Prize are welcome through Friday, April 15, 2022, and can be submitted here. A selection committee will review the nominations, and the Prize will be presented at the Roundtable’s Annual Meeting in October before a large audience of donors.