Bloomberg’s charter push: Big money and bigger political peril

Michael Bloomberg, wearing a green tie, stands at a podium in front of a row of American flags.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg addresses his staff and the media after announcing that he will be ending his campaign in March 2020 in New York City. More recently he announced a $750 million pledge to expand charter schools. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

It’s one of the biggest education-focused gifts in philanthropic history: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced he would spend $750 million over the next five years to expand charter schools.

“You can legitimately call it unprecedented,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, who studies education philanthropy at the University of Michigan. “A gift of that size historically has had the power to reshape a field.”

But Bloomberg’s ambition faces a series of significant obstacles, some big enough to potentially derail those million-dollar plans.

Charter schools face political opposition in some cities and states, including places where they were once welcome. In some places, including New York City, they have hit a cap on growth. School districts are losing enrollment, making charter growth even more fraught. 

“Bloomberg can only do so much,” said Tompkins-Stange. “You have geographic constraints with space. You have local regulatory constraints. And you have political will.”

All this means that where Bloomberg chooses to focus his efforts will be pivotal. Bloomberg Philanthropies has said only that the goal to add 150,000 charter school seats in 20 metro areas.

New York City is one, but the other 19 places “are being determined now,” a spokesperson for Bloomberg said in email. The organization declined to make someone available for an interview.

The political problem: Charter schools have faced steep opposition in cities Bloomberg might target

Over 3.5 million U.S. students attend charter schools, which are generally publicly funded and overseen but run by private boards. They are controversial because they compete with district schools for students and dollars and because they are rarely unionized, a fact that draws opposition from teachers unions.

According to his philanthropy, Bloomberg’s investments will help high-performing charter schools “grow and scale”; help new charter schools start; support charter school facilities; produce research on charter schools; and cultivate more teachers and leaders of color in charter schools.

“It’s critically important that we are investing, especially in Black- and brown-led schools,” said RaShaun Kemp, who leads the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, which advocates for charter schools led by people of color. “This is a great opportunity to do that.”

For years, charter schools had strong bipartisan support, championed by presidents of both parties. As New York City Mayor, Bloomberg — who was elected as a Republican, later became an independent, and then ran for president as a Democrat — expanded charter schools.

The current political landscape is different. Bloomberg’s new challenge is perhaps embodied by Mike Hutchinson, a recently elected member of the school board in Oakland, where nearly one in three public school students attend a charter school. 

In last year’s school board election there, Michael Bloomberg donated a half a million dollars to groups that supported Hutchinson’s opponent. But Hutchinson won, and so did a number of other candidates backed by the city’s teachers union. 

“A lot of what we were shifting against was not just ideas from Bloomberg, but his money directly,” said Hutchinson, who opposes charter schools.

“Charter school folks know that their access has been cut off, largely, from our district,” he said. “Elections have consequences.” A recent California law gives school boards like Oakland more discretion to decide whether to approve charter schools, which the school board is taking advantage of.

The political tide has also turned in Denver, where union-backed candidates swept a recent school board election, despite being outspent by supporters of charter schools. Until recently, Denver’s school board had been unusually supportive of charter school growth.

Both Denver and Oakland are already target cities of The City Fund, an organization that supports charter schools backed by hundreds of millions of dollars. A spokesperson for the group declined to comment on whether it was working with Bloomberg.

State law is another obstacle. In Boston, where charter schools have a particularly strong academic track record, charter growth has been strictly limited after voters overwhelmingly rejected an effort to raise the cap in 2016. (Bloomberg and other wealthy donors backed the pro-charter ballot side, while teachers unions poured money into the opposition.) 

New York City charter schools have also run up against a cap in recent years. The incoming mayor Eric Adams is seen as more favorable to charters than the current mayor, but has said he supports the cap.

Charter schools also don’t have, for the first time in recent memory, an ally in the White House.

Meanwhile, school districts have lost students during the pandemic, which could make charter politics even more fraught. Adding schools to an area when enrollment is declining can force shrinking schools to close

Some see that as a feature. “If a school district has to close a school because of movement to schools of quality choice, I think that is what needs to happen,” said Kemp.

But closures are highly controversial, and often face intense opposition from families whose children will be displaced. In Oakland, closures have become a galvanizing political force. 

“That’s been our biggest fight, always, is stopping school closures,” said Hutchinson. “Charter schools have just been an outgrowth of that.”

Despite those political obstacles, charter schools grew rapidly last school year, gaining more than 200,000 students, according to data compiled by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Bloomberg Philanthropies touted this growth in its announcement.

But much of that growth came at virtual charter schools, and Bloomberg specifically noted that it will not support virtual or for-profit schools. 

Enrollment gains also tended to be bigger in states controlled by Republicans. Those places have generally offered a more hospitable climate for charter school growth, and could be where Bloomberg’s initiative finds the most success.

The educational question: Are charter schools as successful as Bloomberg claims?

Bloomberg’s gift rests on a major assumption: charter schools were able to pivot more effectively after the pandemic disrupted American education. 

“American public education is broken,” Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed announcing the gift. “Since the pandemic began, students have experienced severe learning loss because schools remained closed in 2020.”

In fact, many charter schools were also slow to fully reopen, including Success Academy, which Bloomberg touted. A preliminary analysis shared with Chalkbeat by professor Sarah Cohodes of Teachers College at Columbia University found that charter schools in a number of states were no more likely to offer in-person instruction than district schools.

Another study found that right after schools were shuttered in March 2020, charters were slightly more likely than district schools to detail a plan to track student progress and attendance, but were less likely to ensure access to instruction for students with disabilities. 

There is some indication of a charter advantage, though. Overall, 81% of parents of students in charter schools said they were at least somewhat satisfied with instruction at their child’s school last year, one poll found, compared to 76% of district school parents. And charter enrollment grew, while district enrollment declined, another measure of parent satisfaction.

More broadly, pre-pandemic research suggests that charter schools perform about the same as nearby district schools on standardized tests. Virtual charter schools, at least pre-pandemic, seem to be particularly ineffective.

The research is much stronger for a specific brand of charter schools: networks that use a “no-excuses” approach that combines high expectations and strict discipline.

“There is a group of charter schools, many of which are located in urban areas serving primarily Black and Hispanic students — and many of those schools do have big effects,” said Cohodes. 

There are still questions about access at such schools — some, for instance, do not enroll students in the middle of the year or serve relatively few students with disabilities. And their strict disciplinary approach has received substantial criticism from students and alumni, prompting many schools to promise changes.  

Overall, Cohodes thinks that the money will do some good, but its reach will be limited. 

“As long as you’re focusing just on charters, you’re always going to be focusing on a fraction of the population,” she said.

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