CHARLESTON, SC -- “The Next Stage for School Choice: Supplying the Demand for High-Quality Private Options” was perhaps the first-ever event hosted by The Philanthropy Roundtable that opened with a reference to the baseball classic Bull Durham.
John Kirtley, vice chairman of the American Federation for Children and a Florida-based school choice advocate, said that the school choice movement has made considerable progress at the minor league level, but has yet to reach 'The Show.' The number of schools created and families served is an accomplishment, similar to Crash Davis’s minor league home run record, but it’s time to elevate to the majors.
Kirtley delivered opening remarks to a room of nearly 100 donor attendees and foundation staff interested in bolstering the supply of excellent private schools that meet parental demand for educational choice.
The State of School Choice Policy
Following Kirtley was Katy Venskus, partner at Ampersand Education, who gave an in-depth briefing on the current state of school choice policies across the states, and how these policies fit with building a new supply of private schools.
Among her findings were that school choice policies such as opportunity scholarships are more layered in the states where they already exist, creating overlap and confusion.
By contrast in the charter sector, a state will have one charter law on the books that governs all the schools in that given state. Moreover, charter laws inherently allow for charter school creation, fostering a growth mindset among school leaders. School choice policies cater to filling seats in private schools that may or may not be high-quality.
More notably, in the early days of creating school choice policy (meaning the late eighties and early nineties), policies instituted in places such as Milwaukee and Cleveland were created as lifeboat programs, intended to rescue kids from a chronically failing school and give them private school choices. While well-meaning, no consideration was given to encourage wholly new schools built from scratch, as opposed to filling seats that already existed.
This brought Venskus to the new frontier in school choice: Nevada and its universal Education Savings Account program. In Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, approximately 60,000 students attend schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state. Currently, there are only 25,000 available seats for those students to move elsewhere. This presents a tremendous need for the creation of high-quality schools to serve more kids in need of more options.
The Moment of Opportunity (opening discussion):
Building on the opening briefing, what were some other reasons why private school growth did not take off in the same manner as charter schools? To answer this question, Mike McShane, education policy director of the Show-Me Institute, moderated a discussion with Katy Venskus and Gerard Robinson, resident fellow of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
According to Robinson, the private side of school choice struggled with removing the stigma of ‘private’ within the context of education. The public is more inclined to associate greed and profit with private sector, and associate public schooling with social justice and equity.
Nevertheless, based on the success of activists in Florida mobilizing school choice—using mothers into a political force at the statehouse—Robinson remains optimistic about future political victories in other jurisdictions.
When making a school choice policy that encourages a supply of schools, what are the non-negotiables?
Venskus says the per-pupil scholarship funding needs to be higher; programs around the country distribute per-pupil scholarships that are a fraction of what traditional public schools receive and way too low for a new school to operate.
Furthermore, funding for school choice policies must be streamlined. Currently, there is often a convoluted process of funding going from the Treasury to a third-party scholarship granting organization (SGO), to the school. By contrast, charter schools receive public funding directly from a state or local government entity.
The Role of Philanthropy
When funding startup efforts for new schools, Robinson simply asked of donors, “Give me three years in purgatory, give me five years for a miracle.”
Venskus added the need of donors to recognize 'Year zero,' when new private schools are hiring teachers and covering facility costs before they even open their doors to students. This requires a new funding perspective wherein donors are funding a process as opposed to an outcome.
Following the opening plenary, donors broke into three small groups for rotating discussions on three components of building an excellent supply of schools. These discussions focused on building an ecosystem of support organizations that aid school growth:
1) School facility acquisition and cost management
• Mark Medema, director of strategic initiatives, Building Hope/Building Faith
2) Effective parental outreach and engagement
• Colleen Dippel, founder and executive director, Families Empowered
3) Strong leadership development
• Karen Drezner, executive director, Lynch Leadership Academy
• Katie Everett, executive director, Lynch Foundation
The intimate setting of each interactive discussion allowed small groups of donors to engage in organic conversation with each program expert.
To close out the afternoon (yes, all of this occurred in a single afternoon), the Roundtable’s Katherine Haley brought it all home with Abby Andreitsch of Schools that Can Milwaukee; John Eriksen of the Drexel Fund and; Andrew Neumann of Open Sky Education.
Whereas the opening discussions addressed policy barriers to building a new supply of schools, the closing addressed on-the-ground challenges faced by school investors, school operators, and city-level advocates.
Andreitsch pointed out that despite having a long-established school choice program in Wisconsin, parents still struggle to find good data to make informed decisions about their child’s schooling, as well as quality schools where they can send their children.
From an investor’s perspective, Eriksen explained how he pursues school projects with a 'secret sauce' that offers potential, whether it’s a sound financial plan, a dynamic school leader, mission and school identity, or all of the above. The main challenge he faces is finding school plans that are shovel-ready to invest in, instead having to invent the shovel, guiding grantees towards making a viable business plan.
As a school operator, Neumann must be very thoughtful about which geographic areas his schools will offer the most value to a given student population. For Open Sky to have an impact, there must be enough geographic density so schools have a sustainable student population, and where enough students are eligible to access school choice programs.
A recurring theme of both panel discussions was the need on the part of donors to have a greater tolerance for risk if untested yet promising school models are to take hold and truly flourish in areas with school choice programs.