A new philanthropic endeavor in Newark, New Jersey, will try to achieve what no one else has yet accomplished: to grow a city’s charter school sector to scale without sacrificing educational quality.
The aspiration of the Newark Charter School Fund (NCSF) is for every charter school in Newark to close the achievement gap. Included in that long-range goal is a target that all charter schools in Newark should retain 80 percent of students over a four-year period and ensure 80 percent of their pupils reach proficiency on the state’s math and English tests.
The effort is an experiment by national and local foundations to transform and support Newark’s charter schools. The hope is also that, as a first-rate charter sector grows, charter school innovation and excellence will spur reform within the Newark public schools, and, in time, provide guidance and best practices for district and charter school reform elsewhere.
Stig Leschly is the founder of, and a partner at, the Newark Charter School Fund. He notes that, while funders have been donating to charter schools for many years, they remain “hungry to find the methods that work best and to stretch the limits of what the charter school movement has accomplished to date.” According to De’Shawn Wright, another partner at NCSF, the strategy of the national and local foundations is to “harvest knowledge so it can be an asset for the movement nationally.” The Newark Charter School Fund was conceived at a November 2007 summit of national foundations facilitated by Leschly. As a result of that summit, four foundations with long records of funding both charter schools and district reform—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, the Robertson Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—each pledged $4 million to create the Newark Charter School Fund.
Each foundation has a seat on NCSF’s board, and the fund is in talks with several other national funders to commit the final $4 million to the first phase of the effort. NCSF’s initial funding pool of $20 million will be spent by NCSF over the next three to four years. After NCSF has spent down its initial round of investments, and, subject to progress, it will raise additional national funding to support Newark’s charter school sector and, perhaps, its district schools.
The national foundations’ initial investment in NCSF was conditioned on the participation of local Newark grantmakers, to the tune of $5 million. To date, three such foundations have each committed $1 million to the collaboration: the MCJ and Amelior Foundation, the Prudential Foundation, and the Victoria Foundation. The local foundations will maintain their autonomy when they make grants, but will collaborate with the Newark Charter School Fund.
Newark Charter School Fund is designed to be responsive to local needs and changing circumstances, and it affords its day-to-day staff high levels of autonomy in making local grants and in partnering with local foundations, schools, and stakeholders. “Newark is a unique and changing city,” explains Wright, “and the national funders have given us room to advise them and manage their money locally in the way that closely fits the needs here.” Suzanne Spero, executive director of the MCJ and Amelior Foundation, says both the local and national foundations benefit from the partnership. The local foundations need the national groups because of their resources, national expertise, and extensive relationships. The national foundations, meanwhile, gain from the regional groups’ deep local knowledge, relationships, and grantmaking records. “I don’t think either of us could have done this on our own,” says Spero.
Irene Cooper-Basch, executive director of the Victoria Foundation, says her board of trustees was immediately attracted to the idea of pairing their giving with national funding. “When you can spend $1, and have it matched with $4 right off the bat,” she notes, “that’s a real strength.” Cooper-Basch points out that the $1 million commitment is in addition to what the Victoria Foundation already gives to public schools. While the Victoria Foundation maintains its autonomy in the partnership, she says, “we’re really looking to support what the Newark Charter School Fund is doing. We have a lot of confidence in their ability to make the right decisions to improve the charter school outcomes.” In the next three to four years, during the first phase of its work in Newark, the fund expects to spend the $20 million on five program areas:
- Human capital: Developing and retaining new school leaders, social entrepreneurs, and teachers in Newark’s charter school sector.
- Aid to mature schools: Providing existing schools, whether high- or low-performing, with direct assistance tailored to their specific needs. In its early work, NCSF has supported leadership capacity and data-driven instruction in Newark’s existing charter schools.
- Incubation of new charter schools: Supporting the expansion plans of high-performing schools and, to the extent it can be done without sacrificing quality, attracting and supporting talented leaders and operators to open new schools.
- Facilities: Advocating for charter school access to unused district space, while helping charter schools finance their private facilities.
- Advocacy: Investing in the collection and public study of longitudinal data sets on student achievement and retention in Newark’s charter school sector, in order to create transparency about outcomes and school quality.
Many charter school advocates believe Newark is an excellent site for the philanthropic support. The city’s public school population of 44,000 is “big enough to make Newark a big- city school system,” says Leschly, “but small enough to make the work more manageable than in places like New York or Los Angeles.” Newark’s public school district has been under the control of the New Jersey Department of Education for over a decade, and the city is committed to improving its K-12 education system. Newark has long been one of the poorest cities in the nation in terms of per-capita income and homeownership—but today, many people consider it on the rise, with a growing population and brightening economic prospects.
In addition, Cory Booker, Newark’s dynamic young mayor, is a strong proponent of school choice and charter schools. De’Shawn Wright, who worked in Booker’s office before joining Leschly as a partner at NCSF, says the mayor has proven that he will do whatever it takes to improve public education. Booker, a Democrat, supports a proposed bill in the New Jersey legislature that would provide school choice to inner-city children. The mayor has also sat on the board of a charter school, and has helped provide public school space to charter schools.
Wright adds that per-pupil funding for Newark charter schools is about $10,000, which is much higher than in many other parts of the country and, generally, is enough to sustain a charter school’s budget. Plus, the New Jersey Department of Education provides stable support for charters, and the charter law is not under any obvious threat.
The philanthropic effort also makes sense because of Newark’s strong core of existing charter schools. Many of its 12 charter schools are high-performing—including North Star Academy, one of New Jersey’s first charter schools; TEAM Academy, the flagship of the KIPP schools in Newark; and several other local schools unaffiliated with national charter school networks. (One local charter school, the Robert Treat Academy, was recently honored as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.) About 4,000 students attend Newark charter schools, versus about 40,000 in the Newark public school district.
As well suited as Newark is for the charter school experiment, it nevertheless faces many real challenges. First, there’s the perennial difficulty of growing to scale without sacrificing quality, especially given the high rates of poverty among Newark’s student population. Then there’s the challenge of supporting chronically underperforming schools and the strong opposition to charter schools from New Jersey’s powerful teachers’ unions.
Another problem—albeit one that can also be viewed as a positive development—is that the demand for charter schools is much greater than available space. Ryan Hill, executive director of the TEAM schools, says the limited space makes Lottery Day—the day children gain admission to charter schools through a random selection process—the saddest day of the year.
Newark parents, many of them single mothers, are desperate to provide their children with an excellent education. TEAM’s three campuses educate about 800 students and have nearly 1,000 children on a waiting list. For those whose children are not admitted, Lottery Day brings tears and heartache. That kind of demand shows the urgency of the task facing NCSF. “We wish we could expand faster,” Hill says, “and this will help us.” Other charter school executives are encouraged by what they have seen so far from the Newark Charter School Fund. Karen Thomas is the chief executive officer of Newark’s Marion P. Thomas Charter School, a K-8 school with 480 students that was started by the New Hope Baptist Church. She appreciates that NCSF is addressing the entire charter sector, and not just the best-known schools.
“The better each school does, the better we all will do,” Thomas says. “If a charter school closes anywhere in New Jersey, it affects me. Whatever reason that school closed for, any funder I go to will know about it.” Peter Turnamian, school director of Greater Newark Charter School, which has 176 students in the fifth through eighth grades, says he is impressed by the way NCSF promises to tailor its giving to each school’s unique needs. For example, the fund has already provided Turnamian’s board with access to a consultant to help develop a long-range strategic and fundraising plan, a pressing need at his school.
Cooper-Basch, of the Victoria Foundation, believes that the fund’s greatest challenge will be addressing low-performing charter schools. The schools are independent, under no obligation to follow the fund’s advice or accept its money. But Cooper-Basch feels that two of the fund’s greatest assets may be Leschly and Wright, whom she describes as a “dynamic duo.” Leschly has “a brilliant mind” and “remarkable people skills,” she says, and Wright has the energy of 10 people, as well as experience in the New York City reform movement.
Wright and Leschly both insist on humility about the work ahead. The day-to-day task, they say, is to help every charter school in Newark do better with students. Over time, they hope that students’ results will improve and insights will surface that can benefit district schools, as well.
The challenges are many but the need is urgent, and the Newark Charter School Fund is committed to solving the persistent problems that hamper the growth of high-quality charter schools. Leschly, Wright, and their national funders are optimistic about the philanthropic assignment they have taken up in Newark. “When it works, philanthropy finds solutions and triggers larger reform,” says Leschly. “That’s the goal here.”
Marshall Allen is a journalist living in Las Vegas, Nevada.