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Charity boosts cash to charters

ALBANY — The charter school movement in Albany received $3 million from the Walton Family Foundation last year.

On Wednesday, the charitable arm of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. released the list of organizations that received the $159 million it invested in education reform in 2011. The $3.01 million Albany-based organizations received was a 27 percent increase over 2010.

That makes Albany one of the top areas for the Foundation's investment in the country and one of the group's 16 investment sites. Walton donated more money to the organizations that support Albany's charter schools and the statewide charter movement than it did to schools or groups in major cities including Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Indianapolis and Phoenix.

The money is intended to increase school choice and boost student achievement, Foundation
spokeswoman Daphne Moore said Wednesday.

"This is about inspiring improvement across all sectors and putting parents in the driver's seat for their child's education," she said.

The Brighter Choice Foundation, which supports all of Albany's 11 charter schools received $900,000. NYCan Inc, a new education reform group that expanded into the state in 2011, also received $900,000. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which is conducting a charter school study in Albany, received $149,470. The New York Charter Schools Association, which is based in Albany and supports charters across the state, received $1,062,955.

Moore said the foundation monitors the achievement of the groups it supports and the academic performance and graduation rates for schools. She said the donations are not intended as an affront to unions, but are for parents who want school choice.

The Walton Foundation has donated millions of dollars to Albany schools and education reform groups since the state passed a charter law in 1999. The money has allowed for a rapid expansion of new charter schools in Albany in that time.

Albany school district spokesman Ron Lesko suggested Walton officials take a closer look at the attrition rates at charter schools and the low number of special education students enrolled the next time the foundation is looking to invest in successful schools.

"It's no secret to this community that there are conservative-leaning organizations and individuals influencing the direction of education in our city," he said. "We appreciate their interest in raising achievement in our city. It's clear from all the attrition rates at charters in the city that their experiment isn't working."

In 2011, the Walton Family Foundation also funded major charter networks including the KIPP schools and education reform groups that lobby for changes to state law. The group says it focuses on 16 investment sites throughout the nation that "serve high concentrations of low-income families and don't offer high-performing schools to all their students."

The foundation has donated more than $1 billion to spur education reform across the country, including more than $15 million in Albany. Much of that includes the growth of charter schools, private school vouchers and a push for a "parent trigger," which allows parents to essentially take over troubled schools that have a record of poor performance.