money for reform

Where do the nation’s big charter boosters send their cash? More and more to charter networks

PHOTO: Department for International Development/Russell Watkins

Wealthy charter school backers have directed most of their money to a select number of states, particularly ones where charter schools are better at raising test scores, according to a new study.

The research also finds that foundations are sending a larger share to charter school networks and a smaller share to stand-alone charters — echoing complaints from independent charter school leaders that they’ve gotten short shrift from funders.

The concentration of funding, researchers Joseph Ferrare and Renee Setari write, gives “foundations considerable leverage.” It has also “enabled some charter management organizations (e.g., KIPP) and subsystems (e.g., New Orleans) to expand the supply of charter schools at a dramatic rate.”

The researchers combed through multiple years of spending from 15 education philanthropies that have supported charter schools, including major donors like the Gates and Walton foundations and local ones like the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City and the Joyce Foundation in Chicago. (Chalkbeat is funded in part by the Gates, Joyce, and Walton foundations.)

The paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, looks at funding in 2009, 2012, and 2014.

Who gets the money? CMOs, more and more

The philanthropies fund a variety of efforts to bolster charters, from advocacy organizations to individual schools. How that money is distributed has changed over time.

More recently, charter management organizations have gotten a much larger share, while stand-alone charters have gotten a lot less.

Charter school funds — sometimes described as “venture philanthropies” — that distribute money to schools or networks saw their funding decline between 2012 and 2014. Two well-funded outliers are the Charter School Growth Fund, which the study notes received $45.6 million across the three years — more grant funding than any other organization — and the NewSchools Venture Fund.

For-profit charter networks, or EMOs, received virtually no philanthropic support.

Where does the money go? A few states

The funders studied did not distribute money evenly across states — some got a lot, while others got nothing.

Unsurprisingly, populous states like New York and California, where many major funders are physically located, got the most raw support. Ten states where charter laws were on the books, though usually with small numbers of charter schools, got zero resources from the 15 philanthropies.

“The geographic distribution of the funds awarded was highly concentrated, with 80 percent of the total funding across all three years being awarded to organizations in only 10 of the 39 states and District of Columbia,” the study says.

On a per-student basis, some states continued to come out far ahead. Charter groups and charter schools in Rhode Island and Massachusetts took in more than $500 per charter student, while Louisiana and New York also drew large support.

PHOTO: Converging on Choice: The Interstate Flow of Foundation Dollars to Charter School Organizations"

What kinds of places get money?

Ferrare and Setari also find that states where research finds charter schools are more effective — as measured by test score improvement relative to district schools — seem to draw more donors.

The study also finds that philanthropies tended to converge in states that won funding through Race to the Top, the Obama-era initiative that encouraged states to become more hospitable to charter schools. “Intentional or not, the federal government and foundations worked in concert to advance charter school reform,” the study says.

The fact that philanthropies seem to focus on states where charter sectors are larger or more effective, or both, could be seen as philanthropists trying to get the most bang for their buck. But the study points out that that this leaves other places behind.

It’s also possible that the size and effectiveness of certain charter sectors is partially because of donor support, not the other way around.

“We can say that the money is following the evidence,” said Ferrare. “On the other hand, there are some concerns because it does suggest that those [states] who aren’t doing well are in some ways destined to continue that way.”

Leadership

New principal hired for Denver’s storied Manual High School

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Manual High School, a storied school in northeast Denver that has struggled academically, finally will have a new principal: Joe Glover, who currently serves as an assistant principal at nearby East High.

Glover will start his new job on Jan. 1, according to a letter from district administrators to Manual students, families, and community members. Glover will take over for an interim principal who is leading the school this fall. The last permanent principal abruptly resigned in March.

This was the second time this year that Denver Public Schools had tried to hire a principal for Manual. Its first attempt ended when the top prospect turned down the job.

Glover was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist, Douglas Clinkscales, has worked at Manual since 2007 and is currently the assistant principal and athletic director.

Manual serves about 300 students, nearly all of whom are black and Latino and come from low-income families. Though the school’s enrollment is small, its significance is big.

Manual is often held up as one of the most traumatic examples of the district’s strategy of closing low-performing schools and reopening them with a new program in hopes of better outcomes. Manual was closed in 2006 and reopened in 2007. While the school has seen some successes since then, its students have continued to struggle on state tests.

Read Glover’s resume below.

Super Search

Critics see Susana Cordova’s husband’s job as a conflict of interest. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova visits College View Elementary School in 2016.

Since Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova was named the sole finalist for the Denver school district’s top job last week, critics have zeroed in on one fact in particular: Cordova’s husband is a banker who does business with charter schools.

Charter schools are controversial. They are funded with public money but independently run by nonprofit boards of directors. In Colorado, the majority of charters are authorized by school districts — and Denver Public Schools has the most in the state: 60 of its 213 schools are charters.

Charter schools have played a key role in Denver’s approach to school improvement and have sometimes replaced low-performing district-run schools. Cordova worked in and supervised district-run schools during her time with Denver Public Schools, but community members who don’t like charters have raised concerns about her family connection to charter schools.

Cordova’s husband, Eric Duran, is an investment banker for a nationwide financial company called D.A. Davidson, which has an office in Denver. The company describes Duran as “one of the leading investment bankers in the charter school movement,” and says he’s done deals in Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The deals Duran has done include one in Denver with a charter school called Monarch Montessori, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the far northeast part of the city. In 2015, Monarch Montessori issued $8.8 million in bonds to pay for the construction of five new classrooms, space for a gymnasium and assemblies, and an expanded cafeteria.

An offering document on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notes that D.A. Davidson was paid an underwriter’s fee of $132,225 as part of the Monarch Montessori deal.

At the time, Cordova held the position of chief schools officer for Denver Public Schools and was responsible for overseeing 165 district-run schools. She did not oversee charter schools or play a role in approving charter schools.

If Cordova is hired as superintendent, D.A. Davidson has said it will not do any business with Denver Public Schools or with any charter schools in Denver during her tenure.

The Monarch Montessori deal was between D.A. Davidson and the charter school’s board of directors; the offering document was signed by one of the school’s founders, who also served as president of its board, and a special education teacher who was on the board.

Denver Public Schools was not involved in the deal. In a statement, the district said it “does not have any financial obligations with the bonds issued by charters,” and district leaders “do not influence the financing decisions by independent charter schools.”

But parents and community members who don’t like charter schools see Duran’s work as evidence that Cordova has personally profited from charter schools, which they argue is a conflict of interest and makes her unfit to be superintendent of the school system. They have raised the issue repeatedly on social media.

Duran’s job was also the subject of a submitted question at a forum Wednesday night related to Cordova’s selection as the sole finalist.

In response, Cordova emphasized that no Denver Public Schools employee — including herself — had anything to do with the 2015 Monarch Montessori deal or with two other deals that other D.A. Davidson bankers have done with Denver charter schools in the past 10 years.

She also said she’s proud of her husband, who grew up poor in Denver, sleeping on the floor of the 800-square-foot apartment he shared with his extended family. After graduating from North High School, she said he got a scholarship to college and went onto a career in finance.

“He’s spent the vast majority of his career working on things like affordable housing, public school finance, hospitals — things that I believe we all believe are important for our communities to be thriving,” said Cordova, who is also a graduate of Denver Public Schools and has worked for the district since 1989. “So I’m incredibly proud of the work he has done.”

Charter school bond deals are actually relatively rare in Denver. The only reason a charter school would issue a bond is if it wanted to build, expand, or repair its own building. But most charter schools in Denver don’t own their own buildings. That’s because the district has been more amenable than most in the entire country to sharing space in its existing buildings with charter schools for a fee, a practice known as co-location.

The Denver school board named Cordova the sole finalist for the superintendent job last week. The board — which governs the entire school district and is separate from charter school boards — is expected to vote Dec. 17 on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.