At the Philanthropy Roundtable’s recent annual meeting in Palm Beach, Kaleem Caire (project director at Fight for Children Inc.) and Phoebe Boyer (executive director of the Tiger Foundation) discussed breakthroughs in education in Washington, D.C., and New York City, as well as the challenges that lay ahead. James Shelton (program director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) moderated.
James Shelton: This panel session deals with breakthroughs in education reform. But to know what a breakthrough is, we have to ask what the education system should look like ten years from now if we do things right. Our previous panels gave a clear vision of where our breakthroughs need to take us. School systems will look very different from today. First of all, they will include all the schools in the community; kids will have the opportunity to choose based on what will serve them best; and the system will play the role of ensuring that the community is supplied with high-quality schools to which students have equitable access. There are a lot of steps between here and there. First, we’ve got a tremendous supply problem: How can we have real choice without a good supply of quality schools? Second: How are people choosing between schools? For many parents, their current options are so bad that they’re looking for any school in which their kids will just be safe. We have a job to do educating parents to help them make informed choices and choose good schools. That’s not easy for parents who didn’t have a good experience with school themselves. And if 99 out of 100 schools in your community are bad, how do you know what is possible, what excellence looks like?
Some cities are making significant progress in their schools. Kaleem Caire of the nonprofit Fight for Children is influential in the multi-sector experiment underway in Washington, D.C. Phoebe Boyer of the Tiger Foundation is involved with charter schools in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein are committed to reform through a vibrant charter-school sector.
Kaleem Caire: People want to know about the D.C. voucher program. For those of us in Washington, what’s happening is much bigger than a voucher program. We refer to the reform occurring in Washington as the “three-sector education initiative.” By that we mean additional government money and private funds are going to private schools (via vouchers), and to public charter schools, and to conventional public schools, in hopes of uniting all three types of schools rather than dividing them against each other.
The initiative was launched in spring 2002, when a group gathered to discuss what could be done in Washington to strengthen public schools and to expand choice using charter and private schools. Our goal is to make D.C. a model urban school system by 2015. That spring gathering was followed by discussions with community stakeholders and organization leaders. By fall 2002, we were talking with the mayor and city council, among others.
We planned to secure private funding for the initiative, but in February 2003, President Bush proposed a voucher program in D.C. This caused some concern because there were people who would support privately funded choice programs, but not government-funded vouchers. We had a number of meetings with the White House, Department of Education leadership, and members of Congress. In the end, we all agreed that if we could build support in the city, we could get congressional support not only for vouchers, but also for the broader, three-sector effort we envisioned.
The summer of 2003 proved the most trying time for this effort. National reform groups disagreed with our local reform groups. Capitol Hill leaders would agree to a strategy one day, then disagree the next. Things fell into place, however, when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) threw her support behind our effort. By September 2004, we had a thousand kids in our scholarship program. They’re now in 54 schools, including some of the city’s most prestigious. We also have a Charter School Association operating now, and we have a group of people organizing to promote education reform in our public schools.
These breakthroughs are significant, and a lot of funders helped make it happen. We have $14 million for the first-ever federally funded school voucher program. We secured funding from Sallie Mae—$28 million to help charter schools purchase or lease buildings, thanks to CEO Al Lord, who is an ally of ours. Of the $13 million Congress appropriated for D.C. school reform, $5 million has gone toward attracting successful charter models to open up schools in low-income neighborhoods. We’ve also secured over $5 million in private funding from various sources, including the Fannie Mae Foundation and the Kimsey Foundation. We’re focused on replicating high-quality charter schools, and we’re also concerned about the children in private schools. Many people assume all you have to do is drop a child in a private school, but private schools will tell you they also have problems with principal and teacher turnover, etc., and so we’re going to try to address some of those issues as well.
Phoebe Boyer: In New York City, we have a mayor and a chancellor who actively embrace charter schools, and we have a philanthropic community poised to take advantage of the opportunity. Because the city’s public schools have more than 1 million students, it’s hard to understand how 32 charter schools can have a significant influence. We believe these schools are seeds of change, and with our current administration, these schools are playing a more visible role.
These schools are also facing significant issues: leadership transition, lack of capital, inadequate facilities, and reduced per-pupil reimbursement. Beginning some two years ago, a number of foundations came together to address these challenges. This was revolutionary because the foundation community in New York typically doesn’t always collaborate well.
At the same time the foundations were coming together, the city’s mayor and schools chancellor also made a public commitment to establish a variety of high-quality education options for our children. Central to their strategy was creating highly effective schools that would have greater freedom from regulations and operate in healthy competition with the rest of the system. In exchange, these schools would have higher accountability requirements. Charters were a piece of the plan, but not the only piece. In fact, there’s now more movement towards putting regular public schools into what we call the “accountability zone.”
This approach by the mayor and chancellor, while positive, brought with it the risk of harming charter schools: If the system embraces and sponsors charters, will that ruin the very qualities that make them successful? It takes a little bit of faith on both sides—a system that’s willing to embrace charter schools, and a philanthropic community that’s willing to believe the public system can change.
To help protect charters’ unique characteristics, the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence was established as a fully independent entity in partnership with the education department. The center is funded by the Robertson, Robin Hood, Pumpkin, and Clark foundations. This group has mobilized to stimulate the growth and success of charter schools in order to demonstrate to the public system that the public system can work effectively with charter schools. In addition, we’re hoping to influence other systems to embrace charter schools.
What does all this mean? Right now the center is focused on helping charter schools find facilities at little or no cost. The public system has allocated $250 million of capital spending for charter schools. In addition, the charter center is providing planning grants, board development, renewal training, and fundraising training.
This partnership is not without challenges. We do not want these schools gobbled up. And encouraging collaboration among funders is not easy! But the environment has created, I believe, a healthy system of checks and balances.
Shelton: I didn’t hear enough ooh’s and aah’s so let me make sure everyone understands what Ms. Boyer just described. In New York City, a group of private funders joined with the chancellor of the school system and put together $50 million to start charter schools to compete with the system that the chancellor runs. The chancellor then worked with the mayor and the state legislature and put aside $250 million to build charter school facilities out of the bond offering in that city. If you’ve been following the charter movement and know the obstacles it faces and what relations typically exist between charters and the local school district, you should be oohing and aahing. And we should hear another ooh for the way Phoebe and her colleagues managed to get 15 different foundations around a table to work on charters in their city.
Audience: Ooh! [laughter]
Shelton: Thank you. Now, our panelists have discussed creating and sustaining a supply of good schools, be they private, public, or charter. But there is another need—creating a knowledge base among parents about what good schools look like. Choice works best when parents are informed consumers. We know students do better when parents are engaged, and we know schools get better when parents demand more.
What do parents need? Straightforward, easy-to-understand information. You can use test scores to see how a school is doing, both in terms of absolute achievement and student gains over time, but parents also need insights from other parents: Is a school’s principal accessible? Is this principal thoughtful about the curriculum? Is this principal concerned about safety issues? This type of information parents learn best from one another.
Of course, parents need a lot of other information that isn’t learned best from other parents; for example, what their children should be learning, and how to recognize good work when they see it. We need to create mechanisms for providing this information to them.
Philanthropists have done this a number of ways. One is Greatschools.net. This nonprofit, web-based information system has information on every public and charter school in the country. Parents and schools can also post their own feedback on this site for the benefit of other parents. It is the most used K-12 website in the country.
There is also Just for the Kids (www.just4kids.org), which takes state assessment information for specific schools and compares it to similar schools, factoring in things like family income, race, and percentage of English as a Second Language students enrolled.
I’ll start the Q&A. Kaleem, in D.C., if you had decided to pursue a top-down strategy, instead of building grassroots support, what would have been lost?
Caire: In Washington, D.C., residents often feel as though everyone else makes decisions for them. In some focus groups, for example, we learned from families with school-aged children that they wanted not just public schools and charter schools, but also private-school vouchers. Had the reform movement begun at the top, these voices wouldn’t have been heard.
Shelton: Phoebe, what leverage does New York City chancellor Joel Klein think he’ll have with the Center for Charter School Excellence in terms of breaking the monopoly that holds back student achievement?
Boyer: The chancellor is trying to transform the system so that schools receive autonomy in exchange for student achievement. We have pockets of very successful public schools in New York City, but they are concentrated in wealthy communities, as you’d expect. Klein’s vision is to create quality models across the city so as to build a groundswell of support for similar models across the system.
Questioner: Concerns about re-segregation make it difficult to discuss education reforms like charter schools. How do you calm people’s fears about race?
Caire: First of all, you collect data. People assume that the assignment of resources is racially motivated, that predominantly black schools receive fewer resources than other schools. But when you look at the research, the data don’t bear that out. What you do see, though, is students segregated by income, which is a more significant factor than race. Wealthy families can supplement their child’s education outside of school. In addition, teachers flock to schools that have a more stable population—schools that tend to have children from higher-income communities.
Questioner: Ms. Boyer, your efforts in New York depend on Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg continuing as chancellor and mayor. How do you keep your progress on track in spite of who gets elected?
Boyer: We are extremely conscious of the unique opportunity we’ve been given with this mayor and this chancellor, and we are trying to build in firewalls in case the administration changes. For example, in the use agreements for new facilities, we’re trying to ensure the agreements can’t be altered if a new chancellor comes aboard. These have not been easy conversations, but we’ve made significant progress. We’re also trying to engage a much broader community of business supporters.
Questioner: Mr. Caire, how essential is a reform-minded superintendent to the success of your work in Washington? Also, D.C. city councilman Kevin Chavous put his neck on the line for reform and was not re-elected—some say because of serious teacher union opposition to vouchers. What does that mean for similar efforts in other places, and especially for getting Democratic officeholders to support choice?
Caire: The new D.C. superintendent, Clifford B. Janey, is a leader and coalition-builder and is very committed to following through on our three-sector approach to reform. More than any previous superintendent, he wants to bring new charters into the system. That said, none of the reforms we’ve been able to accomplish thus far would have happened without foundation and private support. If our organization hadn’t stepped up, if the Kimsey Foundation hadn’t stepped up, if the Federal City Council (a nonprofit leadership organization) hadn’t stepped up, changes would not have happened, even with the superintendent’s support. The superintendent recognizes this and is relying heavily on such organizations to bring charters on line.
Questioner: In my experience, training and retraining teachers is a huge challenge. How do you handle it?
Shelton: The important thing is to get expert teachers into the places you need them most. One typical problem of urban systems is that they allocate teachers so that the lowest-paid teachers, the new ones, are usually put in the highest-need schools. And so those schools don’t receive more resources but instead get the short end of the stick.
Questioner: There’s been a lot of controversy about the No Child Left Behind Act. Has it helped or hurt your cause?
Caire: As vice chair of a charter school in D.C., I think No Child Left Behind is a good policy in principle, but it has been poorly implemented. I’m frustrated that we are not evaluating the impact of No Child Left Behind on charter schools. Many charter schools find they have to do as much paperwork as school districts do to comply with NCLB, but with less personnel and training.
Boyer: I think this law has changed the dialogue. We’re talking about the achievement gap now, and that’s helpful for raising the level of debate and engaging different types of people.
Shelton: This is a great question to end on because it frames a lot of these issues nicely: How do you create transparency? How do you create accountability? How do you structure choice? All those things are the basic principles that underlie No Child Left Behind. It’s a work in progress, and we have to figure out how to make it work for us.