Wal-Mart fortune molds charter schools

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WASHINGTON -- DC Prep operates four charter schools with 1,200 students in preschool through eighth grade. The schools, whose students are mostly poor and black, are among the highest performing in Washington.

Another, less-trumpeted distinction for DC Prep is the extent to which it -- as well as many other city charter schools -- relies on the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropic group governed by the family that founded Wal-Mart. Since 2002, the charter network has received close to $1.2 million from Walton in direct grants.

One-third of DC Prep's teachers are alumni of Teach for America, whose largest private donor is Walton. A Walton-funded advocacy group fights for more public funding and autonomy for charter schools in the city. Even the local board that regulates charter schools gets Walton Family Foundation funding.

In effect, Walton has subsidized an entire charter school system in the nation's capital, helping to fuel enrollment growth so close to half of all D.C. public school students now attend charters, which get taxpayer dollars but are privately operated.

Walton's investments here are a microcosm of its spending across the nation.

The foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants nationally to educational efforts since 2000, making it one of the largest private contributors to education in the country.

It is one of a handful of foundations with strong interests in education, including those belonging to Bill and Melinda Gates of Microsoft; Eli Broad, a Los Angeles insurance billionaire; and Susan and Michael Dell, who made their money in computers.

These groups have many overlapping interests, but analysts often describe Walton as following a distinct ideological path. In addition to giving grants to right-leaning think tanks, the Walton foundation hired an education program officer who had worked at the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative business-backed group.

But Walton has also given to centrist organizations such as New Leaders for New Schools, a group co-founded by Jon Schnur, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama's transition team and to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In 2013, the Walton foundation spent more than $164 million across the nation. According to Marc Sternberg, appointed director of K-12 education reform at the Walton Family Foundation in September, Walton has given grants to 1 in every 4 U.S. charter startups, for a total of $335 million.

Charter school supporters and critics, many of them fierce, cannot be easily divided into political camps. Supporters include both Republicans and Democrats, although critics tend to come more from the left.

A separate Walton foundation that supports higher education bankrolls an academic department at the University of Arkansas in which faculty, several of whom were recruited from conservative think tanks, conduct research on charter schools, voucher programs and other policies the foundation supports.

While charter schools and vouchers may benefit those families that attend these schools, there may be unintended effects on the broader public school system.

Grant recipients say Walton injects entrepreneurial energy into public education and helps groups eager to try new ideas move more quickly than they could if they relied solely on publicly managed bureaucracies. Thousands of children, they say, attend better schools because of options Walton supports.

Critics say Walton backs schools and measures that take public dollars -- and, some say, the most motivated families -- away from public schools, effectively creating a two-tier educational system that could hurt the students most in need.



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