More than 150 funders from across the nation converged on Memphis this week to learn about how they should be investing their dollars to expand education access in K-12 schools.

Held partly at the National Civil Rights Museum, the two-day forum coincided with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the assassination in Memphis of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — an observance that set the stage for discussions about education equity in America.

“Memphis is a hub of innovation where philanthropists and leaders are working to provide students from under-resourced backgrounds with access to excellent schools, teachers, and leaders,” said Katherine Haley, senior director of K-12 education programs at The Philanthropy Roundtable, which sponsored the forum through its Washington D.C.-based network of charitable donors.

Participants toured Soulsville and Power Middle School charter schools. They also learned about big lessons from investments in Memphis in the last decade. Among the speakers were Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District; David Montague, executive director of Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher preparation program; and Pitt and Barbara Hyde of the Hyde Family Foundation, a major funder in Memphis education. (Chalkbeat receives funding from the Hyde Foundation. Read about our funding here.)

Chalkbeat spoke with Tosha Downey, advocacy director for the Memphis Education Fund, the city’s primary philanthropic organization to improve schools, and also heard from Hyde Foundation CEO Barbara Hyde. Here are three big takeaways.

1. The funding story in Memphis shows why local buy-in is crucial.

Tosha Downey

Education reformers have a history of not listening to the communities they are trying to serve, and Memphis is no exception, according to Downey.

“There’s this persona among people doing this work of ‘I got my great degree and went to great a school, so I can make assumptions about what I know and not actually talk to people impacted,’” Downey told Chalkbeat after the event. “I get the sense folks have made that mistake a lot. … I hope they walked away with concrete examples of what we’ve done here.”

Downey served on one panel discussion with Sarah Carpenter, executive director of The Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group that the forum heralded as an example of authentic community engagement.

2. The ‘portfolio model’ is in.

During one Q&A, Hyde said her foundation has placed its bets on the portfolio model of school governance, which is the idea that schools should be managed like stocks in a portfolio. That includes a diversity of models, with the most successful ones receiving the go-ahead and resources to expand.

The Hyde Foundation is among philanthropic groups betting big on this model, although success can look vastly different from city to city. Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which operates 30 schools, mostly charter schools in Memphis, has been called a “national exemplar” in pioneering the portfolio model, but the district’s academic progress has lagged.

Downey said one benefit of the portfolio model is a move away from a dynamic of pitting charter schools against traditional public schools in the fight for resources. Both types of schools can be worthy of investment, she said.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Downey said. “Every school being a charter school is not a goal for us. But having enough opportunity and diversity of school types and models is.”

3. Invest in quality over growth.

Hyde said Memphis grew its charter sector too quickly. About 80 operate in the city today, compared to 15 in 2010.

Her foundation has made a course correction to focus on “quality, not growth.”

“Over last five to six years, we built a robust network of high-performing charter schools,” she said. “Not all are performing at the level we’d like, but we have talent on the ground.”

She cited three ways to double down on quality: Strengthen the teacher pipeline, strengthen curriculum, fund wraparound services.

The roundtable’s next national forum on K-12 philanthropy is scheduled for April 2019 in Denver.