The Walton Family Foundation is one of the largest backers of school choice in the U.S., spending over $1 billion in the area so far. And that may just be a start, given a combined Walton family fortune of over $100 billion. (See Walton Family Foundation: Grants for Charter Schools)
One family member to watch closely as the Waltons' education philanthropy keeps ramping up is Carrie Walton Penner. The daughter of Rob Walton, Penner — who is in her early 40s — has focused her career on education policy and is the family member most immersed in its giving to K-12 education. Penner has not only worked as an education program officer at the Walton Family Foundation, but she also sits on the board of the foundation as well as the boards of several of its largest ed grantees.
So what do we know about Carrie Walton Penner?
Not much, really. Despite her family wealth (her father is worth $33 billion) and philanthropic clout, Penner has rarely been written about by the media and keeps a low profile. She is now a stay-at-home mom of four children in Atherton, California, where she lives in an $18 million home.
But we do know a few things about Carrie Walton Penner. For starters, she's very much the product of elite education institutions — as opposed to, say, the cultural milieu of Bentonville, Arkansas. She attended private school at the Governor's Academy in Newbury, Massachusetts, which was founded in 1763 and stresses service to the greater good. The school motto is non sibi sed aliis, Latin for “not for self but for others.”
After graduating prep school in 1988, Penner went to Georgetown, where she studied economics and history. By the mid-1990s, she was deeply into education issues and finished her master's degree in Education Policy and Program Evaluation at Stanford University.
Penner has held a number of different jobs in the ed sector. In addition to working as an education program officer for the Walton Family Foundation, she has been an evaluator for the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship and did internships at the Rockefeller Foundation, Aaron Diamond Foundation, and Academy for Educational Development. She was also a research analyst for an evaluation of the Michigan Mathematics and Science Centers for Woodside Research Consortium.
In addition, when her husband, Gregory Penner, was a top executive in Walmart's Japan office, Penner did consulting for the Willowbrook International Preschool in Toyko.
Penner is more than a funder of the school choice movement — she's actively directing through board memberships in several key organizations. She is on the board of the KIPP Foundation, America's largest charter school organization, running 125 charter schools. The number of students KIPP schools enroll is set to double thanks to $25 million gift by the Walton Family Foundation last year. She also sits on the board of Alliance for School Choice, which not only supports charter schools but also has backed vouchers and is chaired by Besty DeVos, a prominent Republican and a long-time proponent of vouchers and privatization of public schools.
Penner is active in several California education organizations, most notably the California Charter Schools Association, which seeks to expand and defend charter schools in California. (The group is heavily backed by the Walton Family Foundation.)
Her husband Greg Penner is equally immersed in the ed world, as co-chair of the Charter School Growth Fund, one of the big players in the charter school movement, and a board member of Teach for America. (See IP's profile of Penner.)
The Penners are definitely one of the top power couples in ed reform circles right now, with huge resources and major clout.
Judging by her campaign donations, Carrie Walton Penner is a moderate Republican with occasional Democratic sympathies. She gave money to Bill Clinton in 1991 when he was running for president and donated to George W. Bush when he first ran for president and again when he ran for re-election. And also gave money — and presumably her vote — to Barack Obama in 2008. Similarly, Penner has donated to Republican congressional candidates, but also to Democrats like Michael Bennett of Colorado, who supports school choice.
In 2009, Penner donated heavily to Republican candidates for the state legislature, contributing to a surge of conservative funds that helped put the GOP in complete control of Wisconsin in 2010. Thanks to the dominance, Governor Scott Walker was enable to enact some $800 million in cuts to public education.
Greg Penner appears to be the more hardcore Republican in the family. He is the son of the Christian sex therapists Clifford and Joyce Penner, and like his wife, has degrees from Georgetown and Stanford. Penner spent the 1990s working for Goldman Sachs as a financial analyst before joining his wife's family business as a VP at Wal-Mart.
Greg Penner has long been involved in Republican presidential campaigns, as a backer of Bush-Cheney in 2000 and 2004, and of John McCain in 2008, even as his wife contributed to the Obama campaign. Penner is a board member of Wal-Mart, but left the company in 2005 to help create Madrone Capital Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm connected to Rob Walton which, among other things, manages the wealth of Walton family members.
Carrie Walton Penner is still a really busy mom of four, but at some point she'll be much less busy — and also a lot richer. Expect her to become an even more central player in Walton philanthropy in coming decades and, as consequence, wield significant clout over U.S. education policy.