Corporate cash funds deprived schools

8th August 1997 at 01:00
UNITED STATES. California's poorest areas are being used by a charity to test its ideas, Tim Cornwell reports

A right-wing foundation financed by one of the world's richest men has targeted some of the most depressed areas of Southern California to test its ideas on reforming schools.

The School Futures Research Foundation has contracted to open and operate three new schools, including one in Watts, Los Angeles, a name made famous by rioting in the 1960s and still a byword for urban problems.

The Watts Learning Centre will be a charter school, one of the publicly-funded schools run by private organisations that are growing in popularity in the US. The scheme is similar to Britain's grant-maintained system, which the Government is to abolish.

The Watts centre is intended to open this autumn with 120 kindergarten children, though staff are still looking for a site.

School Futures, based further south in San Diego, was set up by John Walton, son of the founder of the Wal-Mart retail chain, and listed as the eighth richest man in the US.

Walton is one of several corporate grandees who have thrown their money into the education debate, pushing conservative and market-based alternatives to traditional schools, typically through the think-tanks and foundations they finance.

Walton set up the non-profit San Diego group with a Pounds $2 million (Pounds 1.2m) donation; he has also backed education technology ventures and given scholarships for inner-city children to attend private schools.

The two other schools are opening in south-east San Diego, like Watts a heavily African-American area, and in the city of Palo Alto, serving mostly Latino children.

School Futures has provided the start-up collateral - $250,000 in the Watts centre - which can be a major obstacle for local groups trying to set up charter schools. It has also contracted to run the three schools for five years.

The aim, according to chief education officer Eugene Ruffin, is to pioneer independently-run charter schools outside the middle-class areas where they are now more common. Watts schools have long ranked low on the achievement scale, and the foundation's efforts have won the backing of community activists who have little in common with Walton politically.

The Watts Learning Centre will be used to test conservative approaches to education. "So many of our public schools fail but they are not closed down," said Ruffin. "We will try to get people to come to our doors who like running their own business, who like doing what it takes."

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