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.”

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.