Charter School Growth Fund

  • Education
  • 2005

In 2005, as it was becoming clear that charter schools could produce powerful results among previously ill-served students, funders turned to the imperative of increasing the number of these effective schools as fast as possible, without watering down quality. To kickstart replication of high-performing schools, John Walton and Don Fisher each committed $5 million of startup funding to create the Charter School Growth Fund. The fund would collect capital from large education donors, then channel the pooled money to carefully chosen operators who had demonstrated clearly that they could create effective schools.

Once the fund was in existence, more than 375 school operators applied for grants, but only 40 were selected, and large, multiyear investments of several million dollars were given to each. The beneficiaries included schools like Yes Prep, IDEA, Denver School of Science and Technology, and Rocketship, which have since grown into nationally renowned chains. Generally the fund invests in charter operators that are the top performers in their city. The money is not to be used to cover operating costs, but is specifically directed to gearing up management so the network has the capacity to open more schools. The fund offers expert business coaching as well as funding.

In addition to Walton’s eventual $25 million and $17 million from Fisher, donors to the fund’s first investment round of $87 million included the Bradley Foundation ($14 million) and other foundations like Kern, Dell, Gates, Broad, Casey, Anschutz, and Robertson. In 2010 the CSGF launched a fresh round of fundraising and collected more than $160 million from the likes of Reed Hastings and the Walton, Arnold, and Hyde family foundations. About the same time, the group began forming specialized sub-funds that focus on particular problems (its Facility Fund helps schools acquire buildings) or regions (special New Orleans, Tennessee, and Florida investment pools). By 2015 the Charter School Growth Fund had committed around a quarter of a billion dollars of philanthropic money to support the creation of a third of a million new seats for low-income and minority children around the country.