Sam Walton's Granddaughter Has Plans To Fix Public Education In America
Until now the personable Penner has been hesitant to speak up. Her conversations with FORBES make up her first extensive media interview, and she speaks with the careful deliberateness of one of her charter school English teachers. Listen carefully, though, and you get a clear vision of the charter school movement over the next five years and her place in it, something that she's been working toward, both consciously and unwittingly, over the past two decades. YES Prep North Central is an appropriate place to begin that conversation. Ranked the fourth-best high school in Texas and 28th in the country by U.S. News & World Report, it represents everything that's great about charters. Namely that all children, no matter their circumstances, can succeed when they attend the right school.
"We've always had a strategy and theory for change," she says. "The current plan has been to have a new supply of high-performing, mostly charters, for parents to choose from." To Penner that last clause is key: choice. Her four children, ages 10 to 16, go to private schools, but each attends a different one based on what is best for them. "We're living choice. That's what we want for all parents."
…Penner has emerged as the Waltons' leader in education efforts. She attended her first board meeting at age 12 but became passionate about K-12 when, as a freshman at Georgetown, she started tutoring high school kids on probation at D.C.'s public schools. She was shocked. "There were no safe places for these kids, certainly not in school. It was amazing to me that they stayed in school given the circumstances," recalls Penner. "I was helping a 17-year-old who didn't read at second-grade level. I asked him, 'What do you do when called on in class?' He said he acts out."
Penner was nearing graduation, in 1993, just as the family foundation was formalizing. She pitched in, reaching out to Waldemar Nielsen, best known for his influential tome, The Big Foundations. At his recommendation she went to New York City to work with several individuals and institutions, including education expert Edward J. Meade Jr., a veteran of the Ford Foundation. She also interned at the Aaron Diamond Foundation, one of the first supporters of AIDS research, and at the Rockefeller Foundation, where she got to do a three-week stint in Zimbabwe. "We were trying to figure out our choices," recalls Penner. "Learning by doing, which was my grandfather's approach."
The Walton Family Foundation was formally established in 1994, with Penner as its first program officer. She worked closely with her uncle John Walton, who was then leading their education work. One of its earliest grants funded curriculum development. Another went to Teach for America to send teachers to the poverty-stricken Arkansas Delta. That group has since gotten $93 million from the Waltons, making it the single-biggest recipient of the family's funds. As for Penner, she eventually headed to Stanford, where she conducted education-related research. (She had originally planned to get her doctorate, but graduated with two master's.) In one study she did qualitative analysis on how county-based centers provided math and science support to district schools and teachers. She also helped analyze the afterschool curriculum for middle and high school students in San Francisco's high-poverty areas. She might have taken a more low-key role had it not been for the sudden death of her uncle John in a 2005 plane crash. "We were shocked and concerned after he passed away," says Jed Wallace, chief executive officer of the California Charter Schools Association. "But I saw quickly that Carrie herself was quite formidable. She is the anchor of the Walton family after the passing of her uncle."