Donald Fisher is the founder and chairman emeritus of Gap, Inc., the retail clothing empire based in San Francisco. The company, born of Fisher’s frustration with a pair of ill-fitting jeans in 1969, grew from a single store in San Francisco to one of the world’s best-known and most prosperous clothing retailers, with $16 billion in sales now encompassing such popular brands as Gap, Gap Kids, Old Navy, and the Banana Republic. In 2003, Fisher decided to step down as chairman and devote himself fully to philanthropy. He and his wife, Doris, have long been active in various local, state, and national nonprofit ventures, including service on the boards of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Teach For America, and as trustees at both Princeton and Stanford universities. Mr. Fisher has also helped the Presidio Trust transform San Francisco’s former military base into the nation’s first privatized national park.
He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, where he excelled as a water polo player and all-American swimmer. Before launching his clothing business, he worked in real estate and contracting. Now he may be best known for his interests in modern art and education. In the latter field he has been a major supporter of KIPP charter schools—a national network of high-poverty, high-performing college preparatory schools that he hopes to replicate with Gap-like success—as well as Teach For America, GreatSchools.net, and EdVoice, a state-wide coalition of California business leaders and others who support education reform. Mr. Fisher also serves on the State Board of Education.
During a break at a recent Roundtable meeting, he talked with Philanthropy about the future of the public charter school movement in which he’s been active.
PHILANTHROPY: You’re helping to make KIPP a national brand name in charter schools. Are we headed toward a system of national brand-name charters?
MR. FISHER: I would hope so, but only if they stand for quality. If public charter schools don’t stand for quality, if they don’t police themselves, this burgeoning little industry will disappear. Charters are already touching around three-quarters of a million students in roughly 3,000 schools, and beyond that, I think the movement is making a larger and larger difference in the conventional public schools, too—I’m not just doing this for the kids who go to KIPP and the other schools we support.
If you get a superintendent who doesn’t cave in to the unions, then you’ve got an opportunity to improve schools in your city. That’s what Joel Klein is doing in New York, and it’s happening in a lot of other cities, including San Francisco, where the superintendent has started what’s called Dream Schools. She’s had problems with the unions, but those students are wearing uniforms and going to school for a longer day. When a superintendent is a broad enough thinker, he or she will make facilities available to charters and use them as models to drive change across the district.
PHILANTHROPY: If we end up with a bunch of brand-name schools across the country, wouldn’t you expect some of them to be Ritz Carltons while others are more Motel 6?
MR. FISHER: The interest Doris and I have in improving public education comes from our worry that the gulf is growing, not as much between the “haves” and “have-nots” anymore, but between the “knows” and the “know-nots.” If you are white and live in a relatively affluent community, you have a good chance of going to college. If you are black or Latino and live in a disadvantaged community, your chances of getting a good education and going to college are terrible.
My approach to philanthropy is to try to take care of the underserved kids first and see if we can do something there. Frankly, at KIPP it’s working. The kids there are making amazing gains because they are soaking up a new world of learning like blotters. I ask, “Why are you going to school?” and they look me in the eye and say, “I’m going ’cause I want to learn. I want to go to college.” Each classroom has the name of the university the teacher attended, and in the summer they take the kids to local universities, and they take them to places like Stanford and Harvard. If you ask the kids where they want to go to college, they don’t say, “I want to go to Harvard.” They say, “I’m going to Harvard.”
PHILANTHROPY: Why do you focus on public charter schools instead of other education reforms?
MR. FISHER: Because charter school leaders have control over their school budgets and can hire and fire their staff. The idea has really taken off over the past 15 years and has the best chance of being built up to scale in the United States. I think similar things being discussed—vouchers, tax credits, and so forth—may expand educational opportunities, but I work with charter schools because 41 states now have charter school laws on the books. Admittedly, the quality of those charter laws varies a lot. As researcher Terry Moe has said, some states’ charter school laws are designed so they won’t work. There are also constant battles involving even the good charter laws. For instance, New York City chancellor Joel Klein is struggling to deal with the state-wide cap on the number of charter schools allowed, which has almost been reached. He wants to arrange for New York City to have a special deal that will allow considerably more charters to open. It’s unclear whether he’ll succeed. If he doesn’t, there won’t be many more charters in New York.
Ideally, every kid in America should have the opportunity to have the tax dollars allocated to him follow him to whatever school he attends. California’s thinking about that, but it’s not exactly the most popular idea since there is a large, vocal group that likes the status quo.
When I look at the work we’ve done with KIPP charter schools, I’m more hopeful. There are now 45 KIPP charter schools all over the country. When we decided to help KIPP spread its “brand,” we spoke to the founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. They both thought that training principals was what the charter school movement most needed, especially training principals in organizational leadership and business practices. So we started the Fisher Fellows program that trains principals so they can launch new KIPP schools. They train for six weeks at the University of California business school in Berkeley. Then they spend the rest of the year doing hands-on leadering as residents in other KIPP schools and then planning for the start of their own schools.
Much more could be done across the country to enlarge public charter schools than is being done today. Most work is only on the local level, even though charters are really a national movement. We’ve got to get more momentum going nationally to achieve all that’s possible for charters. I encourage all Roundtable associates and other funders not to limit themselves to local concerns. We’ve got to get the players in each state to assemble a coalition of people supporting charters. Build strong state associations and gradually work to expand the strength of your state charter laws. And don’t forget the national dimension, too.
PHILANTHROPY: What sort of things can be done at the national level?
MR. FISHER: The Walton, Annie E. Casey, and Gates Foundations have joined Doris and me recently in helping start a new national association, which we think is going to be very good, called the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Its objective is to work with other associations around the country, to testify when things come up in the legislatures or the courts, and to advance the charter school movement across the United States. I think if we don’t have a major national program, the work of funders and grantees will be whittled away. The unions will highlight the bad charter schools, and most Americans will never even be clear what a charter school is. We’ve researched this and discovered that a lot of people either admit they don’t know what a charter school is or they think charters are private schools. So now we always say, “public charter school.”
Publicity about the movement is critical. Every new school opening should be publicized, and good test scores from these schools should be broadcast through the local media as much as possible. KIPP has received excellent coverage in newspapers and television, for example, and that helps the reputation of the whole charter school movement.
PHILANTHROPY: You’re based in California. How are charters faring there?
MR. FISHER: In some ways California has taken the leadership in the charter school movement. For example, about five years ago, several donors with an interest in charter schools got together with the teachers’ unions, something that probably wouldn’t happen anywhere else. The unions wanted to put a proposition on the ballot to lower the votes needed to approve bond issues from 66 percent to 55 percent. We said we’d help fund that effort if they would include on the same ballot initiative a provision to ensure facilities for charter schools. The deal was struck and the proposition passed, with few people even realizing the charter school provision was on the ballot. Now the state is required to give facilities to charter schools, whose single biggest problem is usually a lack of funds for facilities.
Problems remain, because a lot of the districts aren’t cooperating well, insisting they don’t have any space to give charters, etc. So a group of us have helped the plaintiffs in a number of lawsuits that would force counties and districts to give space to the schools. Just the other day we won a major lawsuit because of provisions in the original proposition that require spaces to be given contiguously. That puts charters in a much better position.
We helped put into business a top-rate association in California, the California Charter School Association. We also have a group that advises the state board of education. In California a charter entrepreneur can seek an authorizer at several levels. If you don’t get your charter because the district hardballs you, you go to the county; if they refuse, you go to the state. The state has overridden the counties and districts and granted charters to groups they rejected, which makes the counties and districts more inclined to grant charters themselves.
I go into all this detail because I think each state should be doing the same things to help charters thrive. Ohio, for instance, doesn’t have a state association, and I think they need a strong one.
PHILANTHROPY: You’re helping California charter schools with more than just financial support, correct?
MR. FISHER: Yes. I’m on the state board of education, where four or more of us are strong charter supporters. We’ve encouraged the state superintendent’s office to set up a charter school division.
We have over 500 charter schools in California, about 450 of which are good. To be a member of the state association, schools have to meet quality requirements. The movement in general needs to realize we mustn’t accept mediocre or poor charter schools because they’ll bring down the rest of the schools. In California we’re pushing to get rid of the bad schools.
PHILANTHROPY: What about state legislature battles?
MR. FISHER: In California the group of us interested in charter schools formed an organization called EdVoice, which is a lobbying group in Sacramento with a budget of about $1.5 million a year. Its objective is to be a balance to the teachers’ unions in the legislature and to fight for legislation that we think is needed for better education. It doesn’t focus exclusively on charter schools, but they’re a big part of its work.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve described a multifaceted strategy in California—serving in government on the state board, creating external organizations such as the revived charter school association and the lobbying organization, and also you’re propagating brand-name schools around the state and around the country. Do you know of any other state where philanthropists are involved in this many different angles?
MR. FISHER: Not exactly. Bill Gates is involved in education, but so far I believe he’s focusing mostly on high schools. Personally, I’m skeptical that high schools are the best direction at this point. Unless we train these kids from kindergarten up, we’re going to lose them by high school. If you have to choose between helping 100 kids in kindergarten or 100 ninth-graders, take the kids in kindergarten. If you teach them well, they won’t need remedial help in ninth grade.
Also, I think it’s very hard to deal with high schools’ culture and their discipline challenges. So far in KIPP, we’ve focused on middle schools, although KIPP has started a pre-K and a high school in Houston, so the kids in the middle school will have a high school to attend.
PHILANTHROPY: So you’ll develop your own K-12 system?
MR. FISHER: Yes, KIPP may end up with two middle schools, each with about 300 kids, feeding into a high school, and a little kids program feeding into the middle schools. The goal is to have a charter district, as it were.
PHILANTHROPY: What about training for teachers as well as principals?
MR. FISHER: I serve on the board of Teach For America, which I think is an excellent organization. The quality of the teachers they’re recruiting is just outstanding, as is the quality of the colleges where TFA recruits. It’s a two-year program, but most persons who go through the program stay in the field afterwards.
We have just made a challenge grant of $10 million to Teach For America to help them double the size of their teaching corps over the next five years. About two-thirds of KIPP school leaders are alumni of Teach for America, so one condition of this grant is that they set aside a separate division that will start identifying more charter school principals and charter school teachers who will be available to all charter schools, not just to KIPP schools. We’ll invite them to our Fisher Fellows program, and then they’ll be available to other charter schools, with the goal of raising the quality of charters. We’d like to see the numbers in this program grow to about 150 principals per year by 2010.
PHILANTHROPY: Has the difficulty of finding enough talented people constrained the growth of the Fisher Fellows program?
MR. FISHER: Definitely, but I’m uncertain that we are doing all the right things in our recruiting. We’ve focused too much on trying to get the word out rather than identifying and going after great candidates. We should be out recruiting people versus waiting till they come in over the transom. This particular summer, something like half the 35 people starting our program are teachers from our existing schools, and I expect more future school leaders to be coming up through existing great schools. I’ve been impressed with Teach For America’s success at getting high-quality college seniors to apply to teach in the country’s most challenging schools. This year they had 14,000 applications, with 12 percent of the senior classes at Yale and Spelman applying. It shows what you can do when you actively recruit.
I look at this effort just like The Gap. I’ve had the experience of building a company from nothing to 4,000 stores. Why can’t we do the same with schools and do it with excellence?
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of The Gap, what lessons have you been able to take from your corporate career and apply to philanthropy, and how is the nonprofit world different?
MR. FISHER: There don’t need to be as many differences as most people think, if you’re disciplined and want excellence. I’m not spending as much time with our company anymore; I’m chairman emeritus, not even chairman. But in the schools I see an opportunity. Maybe I can do something and be known for something besides building up a commercial company. There are lessons I’ve learned from taking Gap to scale that I can share, like a focus on people and creating standard processes and templates they can use.
John Walton and I committed start-up funding, $5 million each, to a new entity, what we are calling the Charter Fund, Inc., which is uncovering good charter school operators around the country, encouraging and helping them to open more charter schools, and funding not the schools’ operating costs but the overhead of the charter management organization. A number of schools are interested, and we’re going to find more. KIPP has really shown what is possible in this regard.
PHILANTHROPY: When you began, you looked around for a while before settling on KIPP as your model. Could you explain your choice?
MR. FISHER: After I stepped down as CEO of The Gap, I decided to do something in education and hired Scott Hamilton, who’d been head of charter schools in Massachusetts. I told him, “I want to do something that’s scaleable, where we can touch a lot of kids. I don’t want to support just one school; I want to support something that has a broad opportunity around the country. I don’t care how long it takes you to find the right thing, but I want you to find it. When we find it, we’ll know.”
It took him a year, and when we found KIPP, we loved it. A “60 Minutes” piece on KIPP brought tears to our eyes. These kids were graduating and getting four-year scholarships to top high schools. “I got a scholarship for $25,000,” they’d say, “I got a scholarship for $18,000.” Where are you going? “I’m going to Deerfield.”
KIPP started in Houston with two teachers from Teach For America. They became good friends and decided to start a charter school. Rod Paige, who would later become U.S. Secretary of Education, was Houston’s superintendent at the time, and they couldn’t get in to see him. So they went out and sat on the hood of his automobile till he came out to go home. They told him what they wanted to do, and he said O.K. and gave them a facility.
I liked all the discipline and focus KIPP schools have, using techniques such as having the kids sign a contract and having their parents sign a contract. KIPP, by the way, is very willing to pass on its techniques to other schools. In fact, I’d like to end up writing a book about the KIPP way that we could make available to schools around the country.
PHILANTHROPY: High-performing charter schools all emphasize creating a culture of excellence and discipline. How does KIPP go about this?
MR. FISHER: Mike and Dave created that culture from the beginning. They inculcate it in a lot of ways. For instance, they give “paychecks” to all the kids each week, and the kids’ behavior and achievement, pro or con, affects whether they earn more “money” or have money deducted from their accounts. The schools take a week-long field trip at the end of each year, and if a kid doesn’t have enough “money” in the bank, he can’t go. During the year the kids can use their money to buy T-shirts and so forth.
If kids have to be disciplined because they’ve been rude or didn’t look someone in the eye when they shook hands, they’re put on the bench, which means no one is allowed to talk to them, and they have to wear their uniform shirts inside out until they make amends.
There is also a lot of heart and energy in KIPP schools. The schools use chants and songs to reinforce all kinds of things. Walk into a classroom and the first thing the faculty says is, “What happens in 2010?” And all the kids shout, “We are going to college!” They also use chants to teach the multiplication tables and so forth. I went to the school in Denver. They’d been in school for about five days, and these kids knew their multiplication tables.
Part of the rigor comes from time spent in school. They go from 7:30 to 5:00 daily, and half a day every other Saturday (some of them every Saturday), and then they go for several weeks in the summertime. I’m proud we’re showing the education establishment that more time and discipline is necessary and can produce great results, even with kids that enter KIPP well below grade level.
PHILANTHROPY: KIPP really stresses college as the goal, doesn’t it?
MR. FISHER: Absolutely. A visitor to the last graduation ceremony at the D.C. school told me how impressed he was to see that these kids who were finishing the middle school weren’t introduced as the Class of 2005 but as the Class of 2009. The school even refuses to call it a graduation; they call it something like “a promotion ceremony.”
And even though in most cases the KIPP schools don’t have any control over the students once they go to high school, they are still keeping track of every one of those kids. They’re counseling them on where to go to college and advising them how to fill out applications, if their own school isn’t helping with that. I’d love to see all these ideas dispersed around the country, and I’d really like to see some of our principals become superintendents in public school systems. They’d make some changes.
PHILANTHROPY: Is it fair to charge the charter movement and its donors with having stressed quantity before quality?
MR. FISHER: I wasn’t around when the charter movement started, but I think it started as a grassroots movement. It started with unhappy parents. Now the way the movement began may have been understandably anarchic, but if the movement stays that way, we’re all in trouble. That’s what the unions are picking up. The unions are finding some schools with poor results because those schools aren’t well-funded, their teachers aren’t good enough, their governance isn’t what it should be, or the school was never committed to delivering quality results.
One way the KIPP network helps maintain quality is by functioning like a franchise operation. KIPP doesn’t run the schools, but it maintains a lot of control over them because they can’t use the KIPP name if they don’t perform. KIPP also has conventions for the principals to build camaraderie and encourage them to talk to each other about their challenges.
We’ve also funded a number of other charter school management organizations in California, such as Leadership Academy and Green Dot Public Schools, which are all successful management organizations we hope can grow. If the movement could get 50 good management organizations around the country, and each one could open three or four schools a year, it would touch a lot of kids.
PHILANTHROPY: We hear a lot about the need for pre-K programs. What do you think?
MR. FISHER: Theoretically it’s a great idea, but where are they going to get the money? Then there’s the problem that the bureaucracy will take it over and ruin it. Plus nobody has the facilities, and it would cost a lot. I’d much rather see the money going into K-12 schools. If pre-K programs take money away from K-12 and turn out to be nothing but playschools, it won’t do any good.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve backed efforts like GreatSchools.net that research and publicize performance in schools around the country. Why?
MR. FISHER: Well, that’s a potent piece of information mostly missing from the debates. GreatSchools.net gives parents information on achievement school by school. It’s very parent-friendly because the aim is to have parents function as careful consumers of education. It started in California, spread to Arizona, and is now expanding to cover the whole country.
PHILANTHROPY: Principals at the best schools never seem satisfied with how their schools are performing. What have you learned about the business of continuous self-improvement?
MR. FISHER: I think it all relates to leadership, plain and simple. I’ve never known a good leader in the for-profit or nonprofit world who was satisfied with the performance of his or her organization. All the rules of leadership apply in schools, too. If a school has a good principal, it will achieve results, so long as the principal has control of the budget and the right to hire and fire faculty. That’s very important, and it’s why I like charter schools.