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Walton group funds more charter schools in L.A. than elsewhere

Los Angeles Education

Los Angeles charter schools have been the largest recipients of funding from the foundation associated with the family that started Wal-Mart, according to figures released Wednesday.

Since 1997, the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation has distributed $35.9 million in start-up grants to 159 L.A.-area charters. By comparison, Walton has supported the creation of 125 charters in New York City.

Last year alone, the foundation made grants to 23 new L.A. schools, totaling more than $4.69 million, that were set to open in the near future. Both the annual and cumulative totals are higher than for any other region.

Charter schools are independently managed, free from some rules that govern traditional schools and outside the direct control of the local Board of Education. In California, local school boards are required by law to authorize and oversee all financially viable and academically sound charter school petitions. No school system has more charters than the L.A. Unified School District.

The Walton Family Foundation is a leading proponent of offering alternatives to traditional public schools and probably the biggest funder. Besides charters, the foundation supports government-funded vouchers to subsidize the tuition of low-income students at private schools. It also has donated more than $100 million to Teach for America, which recruits college graduates to teach in public schools for two years. 

Foundation critics have cast it as supporting efforts that undermine traditional public education in favor of a model based on and benefiting private businesses. At the same time, however, Teach for America and charter schools have enjoyed support across much of the political spectrum. The foundation insists that it is merely promoting choices for families and that competition spurs improvement at all schools.

The family foundation is managed independently of both the Walton Foundation and Wal-Mart, which has vigorously opposed union organizing in its stores. Although most charters are non-union, the family foundation has no litmus test on that issue and has supported charters that are unionized.

Local charter groups that recently won Walton grants include KIPP, Camino Nuevo, Alliance College-Ready Schools, Larchmont, Aspire and Green Dot.

Across the country last year, the foundation awarded $25 million to help start 112 charters. The full investment since 1997 has been $335 million.

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Twitter: @howardblume | howard.blume@latimes.com

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