A more accurate title for this article might be “A Tale of Two Strategies.” The two strategies were applied by a foundation seeking to encourage public education reform in Colorado. One produced results. The other didn’t. As a program officer at the Gates Family Foundation in Denver from 1990 to 1996, I had the chance to follow some 40 grants-totaling over $4 million-the trustees made to a variety of reform efforts over that time. When I look back now at the results of those grants, the differences seem telling.
One of the reform efforts sought to change existing schools from the inside. That change did not happen. The second, involving so-called “charter schools,” sought to help create some new schools and new choices. That goal has been met.
Restructuring in 10 high schools
Of the $4 million Gates invested in public education reform, close to $1 million was directed at two different restructuring efforts in ten high schools. After five years of funding, we knew of few dramatic changes or improvements at those ten schools. The foundation’s early hope was to support a small number of high schools in the belief that their successful changes would encourage others to follow suit. That expectation proved to be an illusion. By the fourth year of Gates support, a couple of the schools no longer even wanted our funds, or could not even figure out how to put the money to good use.
A Gates-funded four-year evaluation of student achievement at four of the schools found “no consistent changes across all four schools,” although it did find that “individual schools tended to have minor improvement in one or two measures with others remaining the same.” Today, three years after the money ran out, I doubt whether a single school would claim to be committed to the restructuring ideas supported by Gates funds.
First, it was never entirely clear that the faculties or the principals at these schools were excited about making the changes our funds were supposed to advance. In a couple of schools the outside money fostered faculty quarrels. Administrative turnover was a factor as well. When new principals came on board at some of the schools they felt no ownership or obligation to the effort. Second, the community around the school in some cases did not know about or support the changes-a new school board would be voted in and the reform efforts would be pushed aside. And third, one of the efforts was closely tied in with two large organizations, the Colorado Department of Education and the Education Commission of the States, neither of which could-or would, for political reasons-advocate for it.
And now for the charter grants, which sought to help create a variety of good new schools and new choices. That goal has been met. Ten new schools open this fall, bringing to 60 the number of Colorado charter schools opened over the past six years. It all started in the fall of 1992, when the Gates trustees sponsored a one-day conference (at a cost of $10,000) to examine the potential of charter schools. The featured speakers were key players in the establishment of charters in Minnesota and California, the first two states to pass charter school legislation. That conference lit a fire under several Colorado policymakers and educators, and six months later the new charter school bill became law.
Soon after, Gates made a grant of $36,000 to a non-profit organization, the Colorado Children’s Campaign (CCC). It is both surprising and telling that Gates found itself sending an education reform grant to an organization staffed by non-educators, who initially did not know a great deal about school reform. And yet during that first year it was the Colorado Children’s Campaign that stood as the most passionate voice on behalf of education reform. As an organization representing families and children, CCC knew that public schools were not serving many children well, that competition was needed to energize the public schools, and that families wanted a greater voice or a greater chance to participate in the life of their schools. Charter schools spoke to these concerns.
When the first few charter schools opened, CCC brought the school heads together for a series of meetings, which in turn resulted in the creation of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a statewide non-profit association. A year later, the Gates Foundation made a start-up contribution to the League, a front-loaded three-year $100,000 grant. Today the League is in its fourth year, has grown increasingly self-sufficient, and plays a vital role for most of the state’s charter schools. Almost all of the state’s 50 charter schools are paying members.
Looking at these two different approaches and the dollar figures attached, note the contrast: $1 million and little to show for it, versus $146,000 and an ever growing number of new charter schools around the state-14 in 1994, 24 in 1995, 32 in 1996, 50 in 1997, and now some 60 charter schools in Colorado this fall. Of course, almost all of the money needed to open these schools has come not from Gates but from families and businesses in each community. Gates and some other foundations have helped on occasion, but the vast majority of these schools opened without any foundation support. Their professional and curriculum development has been strengthened by some foundation grants, but the key ingredient has been the uncompensated personal energies of parents and educators sitting around dining room tables.
In looking back, and in seeking some “lessons learned,” it is easier now to see some other differences between these two strategies. In trying to help high schools change from within:
The foundation’s funds were tied in with a preexisting culture that was highly resistant to change. While we saw some leadership, we also saw inertia and too many people who really were not all that keen on doing things differently.
We saw schools trying to do a hundred different things at once, but unable or unwilling to define a clear purpose. Public schools have been accused, half-facetiously, of having mission statements of: “You Name It, We Start It.” Some of our high schools suffered from that affliction too. Gates’s restructuring agenda became just one more thing to try to do.
These public schools seldom had much control over their own budget, so changes they sought, such as smaller classes, were hard to achieve.
The restructuring grants had only the most modest relationship to the wider community outside the school walls.
In contrast, in helping the charter school effort:
Gates found individuals who came from outside the system-the squeaky wheels, dissatisfied parents, and restless educators who thought they could create and offer something better for children in their community and who finally had an outlet to try to make that happen.
We found that because little came easily to most of these schools in their early stages, they were infused with a high degree of passion, commitment, and enthusiasm.
We found parents and teachers were the critical reason these schools actually looked inviting and performed well. Parents dedicated untold hours of volunteer work in the start-up years painting, building walls, and rounding up furniture. Teachers demonstrated phenomenal dedication, even with few of the customary resources.
We found schools whose mission statements insisted on small classes, for example, a guiding principle that they were not going to compromise on even if funds were tight. And with charters, they did have control of the full budget.
Two strategies, two dramatically different results. Two stories, one full of frustration and disappointment, the other rich with promise and hope. Much more could be said about why the conditions seemed so much more favorable with the charter school effort, and why that investment has brought a much larger return. And more could be said of what one foundation perhaps should have known years ago, and had to learn the hard way. But I’ll close by simply saying, learn we did.
Peter Huidekoper is an education consultant in Denver; his current projects include two contracts with the Colorado League of Charter Schools. He also works on the state evaluation of charter schools for the Colorado Department of Education.