The new organization aiming to spread a mix of charter schools, school autonomy, and unified enrollment across the country wants to reach 5 percent of low-income students in the U.S. within five years, according to a presentation obtained by Chalkbeat.
The City Fund, whose formation was announced late last month, has already amassed over $200 million and a well-connected staff, making it poised to influence education policy in cities across the country.
The full presentation, used a few months ago to pitch potential funders, offers the most detailed available blueprint of the group’s goals and strategies, which include expanding charter schools or charter-like alternatives. Known as the “portfolio model,” it’s a controversial approach that has faced skepticism from both critics and supporters of charter schools. The academic success of the approach remains hotly debated.
“Our goal is to make the model normal,” the presentation says. “After enough adoption we believe the model will transition from being a radical idea to a standard policy intervention.”
Neerav Kingsland, the managing partner of The City Fund, declined to comment on most details in the document or offer additional information about the group’s funders, but said “nothing dramatic” has changed since the presentation was used.
The City Fund’s pitch: Spreading the Denver, D.C., and New Orleans model
The presentation opens by declaring that “very little works in education reform,” citing an analysis of nearly 200 randomized trials in education.
The group contrasts that to more recent results in Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, three cities that “have broken through with dramatic and sustained gains for all children,” it says. The presentation also cites Indianapolis, Camden, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and Newark as already adopting strategies it prefers. Texas, too, is promoting those ideas through its state education department.
“Given this momentum, we believe that in the next five years we can scale the model to reach ~2% of all United States students and ~5% of low-income students,” it reads.
The City Fund’s goal is for cities to have a large charter sector, “often scaling to serve 30-50% of students,” the presentation reads. Those schools, it argues, creates a competitive environment, one pillar of The City Fund’s model. They believe this will help “all boats rise.”
The second pillar is accountability, or “the expansion of the city’s best schools and the replacement of its worst, regardless of type,” based on a common performance rubric. And the third is equity, which it connects to a central choice system for a city’s district and charter schools.
One thing that is explicitly not part of the approach: more public money for schools. “None of these structural reforms cost public dollars,” the presentation reads. “Cities can increase the efficiency and equality of the system within existing budgets — with philanthropy supporting the transition costs.”
The group has an aggressive timeline for convincing cities to move in this direction, according to the presentation.
Between 2018 and 2021, it hopes to have success in at least 20 cities, affecting around one million students. Specifically, their goal is for 10 cities to have fully adopted the model, and 10 more to be making progress.
From 2022 on, the group hopes to influence “every major city in America,” growing by a couple of cities each year, the presentation says. (“If I had to rewrite that slide I would say, ‘if evidence and demand follows,’” Kingsland said in an interview. “We really aren’t going to expand if the evidence isn’t there.”)
In seven to 10 years, the group hopes to get to 30 to 40 cities.
How will The City Fund make that happen?
Deploying its leaders to speak and blog, convening sympathetic policymakers and advocates, and partnering with groups, including low-income parent organizers, are some of the strategies the presentation lists.
Money will also be a key source of influence.
City Fund says initial investments will be around $15 to 25 million for the first three years in each one of a carefully selected group of cities poised to fully adopt the model. Most of that money will flow to local groups, where City Fund leaders will sit on the boards of directors. After seven to 10 years, The City Fund plans to exit a city, allowing the group to spread to new ones and “enabling national scaling.”
The group will have substantial resources to draw from. As Chalkbeat previously reported, the presentation says the group has raised over $200 million and that its first investors are Laura and John Arnold and Reed Hastings.
What we still don’t know: where it will go, who else is funding it, and whether it will work
The presentation leaves some crucial questions unanswered.
For instance, who else is funding the effort besides the Arnolds and Hastings? Kingsland wouldn’t say, but The City Fund recently netted a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates is also a funder of Chalkbeat.) A spokesperson for the foundation said the grant was for four years and intended to “support both high-quality charter schools in Oakland and school leaders in” the district.
A spokesperson for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation said that it also would be funding The City Fund, though declined to say how much money had been awarded, saying final details were still being worked out.
Spokespeople for the Walton Family Foundation and Bezos Family Foundation both said their groups have not supported The City Fund.
Another question: What cities does the group plan to spend its money on? The presentation doesn’t say, though some other signs have emerged.
The Gates Foundation grant is specifically targeted for Oakland, which recently adopted a plan approximating the portfolio model. City Fund staff members already sit on the boards of local organizations with similar agendas in Baton Rouge, Memphis, San Antonio, and Washington D.C, though it’s not clear if that means those will be target cities.
The Arnold Foundation, whose education philanthropy is now routed through The City Fund, has previously invested in portfolio efforts in Atlanta, Camden, D.C., Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.
As expected for a group raising money, the presentation paints an optimistic picture of the success of its strategy, pointing to research showing substantial academic gains in New Orleans after that district’s structural overhaul post-Hurricane Katrina. The presentation doesn’t include the fact that those gains also came with a sustained infusion of both public and philanthropic dollars — nearly $1,500 per pupil compared to similar districts in the state. That’s striking, since the presentation suggests that no new public money is necessary to realize such improvements elsewhere.
The pitch also doesn’t mention studies of the approach that have found more tepid results, like a recent one on Tennessee’s Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district previously led by one of the City Fund partners, Chris Barbic. (Kingsland has acknowledged those results in a blog post, saying “I thought the ASD charter effort would work. … Five years later, the results paint a different picture than my predictions.”)
And in claiming that little in education reform has been successful, the group doesn’t refer to research on school integration and increased school funding, which have generally found positive effects.
(Kingsland argued the effects of more school spending are small, pointing to one widely-cited national study, and said he supports school integration but questions “its scalability.”)
Doug Harris, a Tulane economist whose work showing test score gains in New Orleans was cited in the City Fund presentation, said he didn’t believe the additional money was the main driver of those improvements. But he is skeptical the New Orleans approach could be replicated without the extra resources.
“We don’t know how much money mattered, but given how much money seems to matter in other places, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest we can do this on the cheap and get these kinds of results,” he said.
Want to learn more about the portfolio model? We’ve written about the ideas and people behind the approach; the research on the model; and efforts to put it in place in Kansas City and Oakland.