Chapter 6: Fundamental Change Via a Citywide Approach
This guidebook has identified lots of discrete initiatives that could be launched in support of Catholic schooling. Some donors might want to set their sights even higher, though, and aim for systemic change that would put Catholic schools on more solid footing for the long haul. Specifically, some ambitious philanthropist could set out to create a “system of schools” in his or her home city that goes beyond the conventional government-run school district to include a wide array of academies—including Catholic schools—while offering families opportunities to choose among all of these schools without prejudice as to school type, and with equivalent economic support.
The school reform that would be most meaningful today would be to stop assigning children to schools and instead to let parents decide which programs are best suited for each of their children. This approach has been building momentum for decades. Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman recommended universal vouchers 50 years ago. John Chubb and Terry Moe’s seminal 1990 book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools put empirical evidence behind that argument. Writers like Paul Hill and Ted Kolderie have mulled ways of opening up a diverse supply of school options. Andy Smarick’s 2012 book The Urban School System of the Future brings many of these ideas together in a “three-sector approach” where public authorities would apply the same even-handed standards to conventional schools, charter schools, and private or religious schools, and let funding follow children to whichever institution fit them best.
Given the events of the past two decades this is no longer a daydream. Three million students (in some cities, a majority) now attend charter schools. We’re approaching 60 private-school choice programs operating in more than 20 states. Several states have adopted “education savings accounts” and measures that enable students to steer portions of state education aid to institutions they attend. In Boston and Philadelphia, metropolitan compacts have been established that put Catholic and other religious schools on equal footing with conventional schools in official systems providing parents with school information and enrollment forms for their children.
Such revolutionary openings-up of our formerly closed public-school systems are almost certainly going to continue. We recommend that Catholic-school philanthropists not only focus on the schools and children where learning is taking place today, but also engage in the national effort to re-imagine future urban schooling on a fair three-sector basis. Big ideas are percolating and big changes may be within reach.
Catholic-school donors can and should contribute to this war of ideas. Donor Leo Linbeck poses the central question: “Do you want to take the environment as given, or shape it?” Kathy Almazol, superintendent of Catholic schools in San Jose urges that “We need more people who have the vision for change. Then we can start assembling people with the work ethic, skills, and capacity to bring it to pass.” Christine Healey of the Healey Family Foundation argues that Catholic schools, many of which have slack capacity that could be put to use relatively quickly, need to be folded into the wider school-reform coalition like charter schools have been over the last decade or so.
“Too often, philanthropists only want to invest in their own backyards,” warns Stephanie Saroki de Garcia. “They know their communities and needs, and they want to see their impact. But Catholic education won’t advance unless philanthropists begin to think much more broadly, funding leaders and ideas that have the potential to show what’s possible, even if it’s not in their own backyards. The charter sector benefited greatly from a dozen or so funders getting together regularly to talk about strategic needs nationally in the sector. The dramatic education gains in New Orleans happened because of a coalescing of national funders who saw an opportunity to demonstrate change, and invested in it, despite not having roots in the city. Their successes in New Orleans have had a national ripple effect. Catholic-education funders can learn from this smart strategy.”
Whenever local education decisions are made, donors should look for every opportunity to have their region’s Catholic schools included at the table. Catholic schools can and should be seen as an integral part of a city’s portfolio of schools, right alongside charter, district-run, and other private schools. This might not come naturally to some Catholic-school leaders—who at times see the charter sector as the opponent not an ally. But as Katie Everett of the Lynch Foundation argues, “Catholic schools need to stop vilifying charters.” They should recognize the places they can make common cause on behalf of real education choice, and they should compete and engage in order to improve their own product.
Bear in mind how much the nation’s thinking about schooling has changed in the past 25 years. In 1990 and before, there was a clear and very wide gulf between public and private schooling. On the public side, the school district was the lone operator of all government-funded schools. To “support” public education typically meant aligning yourself with that monopoly provider and opposing all other means of delivering education.
Then the charter-school movement showed that a range of non-government entities can run public schools—that public education doesn’t require a sole government provider. About the same time, tax credits, vouchers, education savings accounts, and other school-choice mechanisms were proliferating, offering more and more students real options. The public is growing used to the idea that “private” schools also serve the public good, and shouldn’t be denied education dollars. The pre-1990 sense of what is “public” in schooling has been rendered anachronistic. These changes demand fresh thinking about the right approach to citywide reform efforts, and donors can lead the charge.
Shifting to quality and growth
What some call “sector agnosticism” or “sector neutrality”—funding all students in high-quality schools without worrying about who runs those schools—would put the focus of education reform on school performance and family choice rather than on glacial efforts to re-engineer daily operations within government-run schools that continue to dominate public funding. Sector neutrality opens up true competition; it creates a way for new school models to develop, grow, and thrive; it puts the users of schools in the driver’s seat and thus fuels creativity and innovation to satisfy parents and students.
The other thing a sector-neutral approach does is to make the high-quality school king. Once we have fair, transparent systems for measuring a school’s performance without fussing over who is operating it, donors can jump in to expand or replicate the most effective institutions. Donors would, in the words of Adam Hawf, one of the educators who helped turn around Louisiana schools after Hurricane Katrina, be able “to take a more muscular approach to investing in a high-quality supply of schools.” In any new regime that is fair to all schools that perform well, Hawf believes Catholic schools will have a substantial role to play. He urges philanthropists to help leaders of today’s most excellent Catholic schools expand their facilities and launch new campuses.
This kind of growth mindset may not come naturally to many traditional Catholic-school leaders, after having spent recent decades back on their heels. For years, “expansion” simply meant filling the empty seats in existing schools. In the next phase of Catholic schooling it will mean finding the best schools and creating more of them.
To help the sector prepare for this shift, donors might think about investing in two foundation-laying strategies. First, nudge Catholic-school leaders toward this new approach. Base spending decisions upon it. For example, if your city has an academically struggling school with 100 empty seats and an academically superior school that is at capacity, you should prioritize the latter for growth.
Second, donors need to start grooming the next generation of Catholic-school leaders by looking for individuals with a streak of social entrepreneurialism, a growth mentality, and an interest in playing a part in a citywide “system of schools.” Future superintendents and principals must be able to look beyond their own parking lot and envision themselves within the exciting new metropolitan approaches to school reform that are beginning to emerge.
The Drexel Fund, the new philanthropic pool that will provide venture capital to expand the supply of Catholic schools, is a systematic way of investing in quality. The fund is the creation of Rob Birdsell, former CEO of the Cristo Rey Network and the Accelerate Institute; B. J. Cassin, an investor and major Catholic-schools philanthropist; and John Eriksen, former superintendent of Catholic schools in Paterson, New Jersey. Officially opened in 2015, the Drexel Fund will initially target six states with solid public programs that support private schools (e.g. vouchers, tax credits): Florida, Arizona, Ohio, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Its first seed investments went out in fall 2015.
The Drexel Fund is modeled after two well-known philanthropic funds that have been important in expanding the supply of excellent charter schools: the Charter School Growth Fund and the NewSchools Venture Fund. “We are very much of the mindset that if it’s great, the school should be serving more kids,” explained Rob Birdsell. “If someone has a great school, why should their growth be limited? Let’s get creative. They need funding to expand and serve more students and families.”
The Drexel Fund, which was named in honor of Saint Katharine Drexel, a Catholic nun who founded schools for Native- and African-American students in the early 1900s, plans to ultimately raise $85 million and invest that to create 50,000 new seats in high-quality schools that serve low- and middle-income families. Over the next decade the fund hopes to aggressively expand six to eight successful school networks, create 125 altogether new schools, and develop 40 new entrepreneurs to work in private schools.
“The Catholic Church does so many things and has so many responsibilities that running, much less replicating, great schools can get lost or de-prioritized,” observes Drexel co-founder John Eriksen. Citing the charter sector he notes that “the people who have been successful in starting and expanding excellent schools have focused on that one task.” Drexel will fill that role.
Cassin, who donated $1 million in seed money and recruited several other founding donors, explains his motivation. “There are a lot of interesting new models in faith-based and especially Catholic schools, but we don’t have a platform to replicate the most successful ones. That’s where the idea of Drexel came from.”
Practical citywide strategies
In addition to supporting the growth and replication of Catholic schools through venture-capital organizations like the Drexel Fund, donors can be directly involved in replicating high-performing Catholic schools in their own cities. Philanthropic funding should be used to transfer to the Catholic-school world three successful strategies that have emerged in the charter sector: school incubators, growth accelerators, and harbormasters.
Incubators have been helpful to charter advocates in meeting the need for more high-quality schools. They start by recruiting, training, and evaluating promising school leaders, and then supporting them as they plan and open new charter schools. Incubators provide these emerging school leaders with lots of technical assistance, mentoring, connections to board members, help in creating the vision for an excellent school, links to peer school leaders who can share strategies, assistance in getting authorized by local authorities, guidance in finding a facility, and support in securing launch funding from donors and then per-pupil public funding. School incubator organizations like the Mind Trust in Indianapolis, New Schools for New Orleans, Get Smart Schools in Denver, Charter School Partners in Minneapolis, and the Tennessee Charter School Incubator pull disparate resources into one place and dramatically improve the odds that a new school startup will succeed—both with students and in the practical demands of operation.
Growth accelerators are relatively new. Their goal is to ensure that leaders of existing individual charter schools or networks that are performing well have the support they need to replicate themselves. In early 2014 three excellent charter networks—Achievement First, YES Prep, and Aspire Public Schools—launched the Charter Network Accelerator. It offers twice-a-month sessions on designing, building, and managing an expanding stable of schools. This includes assistance on finding good teachers and principals, advice on management structure, and curriculum and academic programming.
Choose to Succeed is another organization working to accelerate the growth of high-performing charters. Its strategy has been to recruit the nation’s finest school operators to San Antonio, Texas, by providing grants directly to schools. It also supports broader efforts to expand parental choice and create an environment that fosters education innovation.
Harbormasters are typically foundations or nonprofits that operate citywide, advising many different schools on ways to increase the number of high-performing seats in the city. They provide vision, strategy, resources, talent, and political will to lead their community toward more great schools. Harbormasters often function as incubators and/or accelerators, but they generally play a much larger role. Education Cities, an umbrella group for harbormasters, identifies four main tasks: supporting quality schools, strengthening pipelines that produce effective teachers, advocating for useful policy changes, and building broad community support. Because of their deep community ties, knowledge of their cities, and ability to financially support projects, foundations can be highly effective harbormasters. Donors should, however, be aware that since harbormasters lead a specific type of long-term agenda, they function on—not below—the radar screen. So they must be prepared for public praise and public criticism alike.
Such organizations are often important in drawing the attention of top national organizations like Teach For America, New Leaders, Building Excellent Schools, and TNTP to their city. Some of these already partner with Catholic schools, and all of them have shown gifts for drawing unusually talented people into school reform. Harbormasters serve as a clearinghouse for information, a linker of schools and leaders, a cheerleader, a defender. Examples of harbormasters include the Mind Trust in Indianapolis, New Schools for New Orleans, Excellent Schools Detroit, Schools That Can Milwaukee, CityBridge Foundation in D.C., the Donnell-Kay Foundation in Denver, the Philadelphia School Partnership, and Accelerate Great Schools in Cincinnati.
To get a sense of how an organizing effort that includes Catholic schools in an ambitious citywide school reform push might unfold, let’s look at the examples of the Philadelphia School Partnership and the Accelerate Great Schools coalition in Cincinnati. Both are “three-sector” efforts that deal evenhandedly with schools of different types. Both rely on hard performance measures to decide which schools to support. Both are focused on expansion of the schools that work.
Philadelphia School Partnership
Formed in 2011 by local business leader Mike O’Neill, a longtime supporter of Catholic and charter schools, the Philadelphia School Partnership is a nonprofit that raises philanthropic funds to increase the number of high-quality school seats in the city. And in the spirit of brotherly love, PSP is “sector-agnostic”—it will fund district-run, charter, or Catholic schools. Any operation that can show good results from students is eligible for expansion support.
The Partnership’s goal is to raise $100 million by 2016 and create 35,000 new high-quality seats. It has already launched 15,800 additional high-quality seats after raising $65 million in donations from more than 50 individuals, corporations, and foundations. Lead investors offering $5 million or more include Janine and Jeff Yass, the Maguire Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation.
To date, 55 percent of PSP funds have been invested in charter schools, 35 percent in district-run schools, and 10 percent in religious or private schools. Its Catholic-school beneficiaries include Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, DePaul (a school in the Independence Mission School network using the Seton blended-learning model), St. Thomas Aquinas School (another IMS school), and Neumann-Goretti High School (part of the Faith in the Future network).
“New public schools cost $50 million, while Catholic schools cost taxpayers nothing. They’re an unbelievable bargain for the city. And we lose some of our best seats when Catholic schools close. So we needed to find ways to work collaboratively,” states Mike O’Neill.
PSP is intently focused on student outcomes. It expects students attending its schools to outperform Pennsylvania and the School District of Philadelphia averages and score similarly to high-performing schools in the city’s suburbs. Early data show that approximately 70 percent of their investments are on track to meet or exceed their performance benchmarks, 17 percent are within reach, and only 13 percent are at risk of not meeting performance standards.
The Philadelphia School Partnership invests not just in schools but also in enabling organizations that help schools succeed. These include the PhillyPLUS program for training principals, the Great Philly Schools website that helps parents assess and compare schools, and the Great Schools Compact that the Gates Foundation funded to get conventional, charter, and religious/private schools cooperating on improving classroom results all across the city. They have also found it necessary to create sister advocacy and campaign-finance organizations to fend off school caps and hostile policies that could block the success of their nonprofit work.
Accelerate Great Schools
State data revealed in 2014 that nearly half of the Cincinnati City School District’s campuses—27 out of 55—were significantly underperforming. The district met none of the state standards in reading or math in grades 3-6, and earned an F on all of its progress indicators. Cincinnati’s charter schools were little better: Black students in poverty who attended a charter school in Cincinnati slightly outperformed their peers in district-run schools in reading, but performed worse in math.
While less achievement data is available for Cincinnati’s Catholic schools, Iowa test scores suggest that the average student in third through seventh grade at a Catholic school is at least one full year above grade level. Despite these good results, though, and the fact that Catholic schooling is mainstream in Cincinnati (enrolling nearly a quarter of the city’s students at present), the business model of Catholic schools has been failing in Cincinnati as it has elsewhere: twenty-one schools there have been closed or consolidated over the past decade and enrollment is down nearly 20 percent since the 1996 school year.
Aiming to strengthen their city’s entire portfolio of schools, including religious institutions, an impressive alliance of Cincinnati groups united in 2015 to form Accelerate Great Schools. The partners include local funders like the Farmer Family Foundation, the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation, the Lovett and Ruth Peters Foundation, and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, along with leaders from the city’s business sector, and from the public, charter, and Catholic-school sector.
“It was important to get everyone to the table,” explained Mary Beth Martin of the Farmer Family Foundation. “This required allaying some concerns. Some Catholic-school leaders, for example, were concerned that our fundraising might sap donations from their campaigns. But we assured them this is start-up money. It’s additive.”
The mission of Accelerate Great Schools is to double the number of seats available in excellent schools in the next five years, and then double it again five years after that, to a total of 20,000 new seats in high-performing district, charter, and religious or private schools. It will recruit school operators, build pipelines for teaching talent, engage the community, and advocate for policy improvements. To fund these activities Accelerate Great Schools set a goal of raising $25 million. Approximately $15 million will go toward creating new schools; $5 million will be used to attract organizations like Teach For America and New Leaders that train teachers; and the remaining $5 million will cover the organization’s operations, including the community engagement and policy advocacy functions.
Asked what others interested in launching something similar in their hometown should know, Martin warns, “Stay true to the goal even when that means not everyone is happy. If you’re really about transformation for the kids, this will involve some disruption, which upsets people. You need to be aware of the concerns that exist and you can allay some of those. But this is about creating change and not accepting the status quo.”
Donors are the key to a Catholic-school renaissance
Methodical, nationwide growth of high-quality Catholic schools is likely to require the same deliberate investment in an infrastructure of incubators, accelerators, and harbormasters that fueled the rise of charter schools. Donors can be instrumental in either starting Catholic-school-specific counterparts to these organizations in their respective cities, or convincing existing organizations to fold Catholic schools into their services and strategies. For example, donors could supply the funding that allows an existing incubator to train and support a leader who would then work with local officials to open a new Catholic school in their city.
New approaches that emphasize a citywide “system of schools” will necessarily include a sharp focus on continual improvement, marked by new entrants, systemwide comparisons, careful school shopping by parents, and a gradual raising of the bar of excellence. We’ve argued in this chapter that it will be extremely helpful to Catholic institutions if they are included as integral parts of their city’s system of schools. But for that to happen they need to shift to a growth and constant-improvement mentality—raising student results, expanding good existing schools, opening new schools, closing consistently low-performing schools, and otherwise meeting community demand.
Donors should continue to support schools directly. They must continue to help students access existing schools through scholarships. They should consider new governance approaches and new school models. They should explore partnerships with universities and other pipelines of teachers and leaders. They should work to make public policies friendlier to Catholic schools. But donors should also think through how all of those streams might fit together and become mutually reinforcing in a wider citywide strategy.
Indeed, donors should be prepared to shift part of their support away from a geographic focus and look instead for the very best investment opportunities, regardless of where they’re located, with one eye on serving the most children and another eye on creating successful models that can be copied elsewhere. Not all schools and dioceses are open to help, so finding a good investment may mean searching for leaders or entrepreneurs who are willing and ready to work with you on innovative projects, even if they’re not nearby. In certain cases a new approach can be supported and honed elsewhere, and then imported back into your home region.
For centuries, Catholic schools have provided a high-quality education to children across the country. They are providing a particularly precious service to the nation today by educating millions of disadvantaged boys and girls from poor urban neighborhoods where families have miserable options in conventional schools. So it’s urgent that solutions be found to the steep challenges that have closed so many Catholic schools over the last 50 years.
We are beginning to see the outlines of a systemic solution to this half-century problem. New approaches to school organization, governance, public policy, teaching talent, and other areas are combining to breathe new life into Catholic schooling. Much more than in other, more mature, philanthropic fields, donors have a tremendous opportunity today to make major differences in this area. Regardless of a philanthropist’s giving preferences or experience or location, the avenues leading to a renaissance of Catholic schooling are wide open. There are hundreds of ways you can be part of the revitalization of this precious national asset.
Voluntary Catholic-school performance contracts?
One of the most important innovations of charter schooling is the performance contract. A charter-school operator gets the chance to run a publicly funded school in exchange for signing a performance contract with a responsible official entity. That external accountability body is typically known as an “authorizer” or “sponsor.” Its board gives the school huge latitude on how it organizes and manages itself, but monitors the charter school’s progress toward its performance targets, and renews or withdraws authorization depending on how well the school ultimately serves students.
There are several important benefits to this system. It clarifies the expectations for a school. It allows leaders wide operational autonomy—since everyone has agreed on what measurable outcomes are expected, guardians of the public purse feel comfortable in freeing up educators to decide on inputs. It gives parents objective indicators of the school’s performance. It gives the government confidence that public funding will be put to good use. Performance contracts were the magic element that convinced authorities to let go of government management as a sine qua non of public schooling.
Charter schools are required to have performance contracts. The same benefits could be realized by religious and private schools, however, if they voluntarily signed performance contracts. It would be an extraordinarily useful experiment for donors to pilot a kind of authorizer/sponsor system for Catholic schools.
This might work in two ways. A donor could fund a relationship between an existing charter-school authorizer with a good track record and a set of Catholic schools in its geographic region. The authorizer would use its normal processes to develop a performance agreement with each participating Catholic school. The schools would be able to maintain all aspects of their Catholic identity, but they would be assessed for academic achievement in the same way as charter schools, and results would be publicized in the same way. No public money would change hands, and the authorizer wouldn’t be able to close a Catholic school for underperformance, but the experiment would encourage excellent performance, show how the school stacks up against similar institutions, provide a template showing what would happen if Catholic schools were treated like charters, and cement the deepening public understanding that all schools serving children well operate in the public interest, no matter who manages them.
An alternative approach would be to create a new, independent city-specific Catholic-school accountability body. Since most cities now have multiple Catholic school operators (some run by parishes, others by the diocese, others by networks, some independent), a single external entity could be funded by donors to enter into performance agreements with each. The contracts could be individualized to allow for demographic and other school-level differences. But they’d also share some common elements with each other and with local charter-school accountability expectations, so comparisons would be possible.
An authorizer system like this would focus everyone’s attention on specific goals, provide invaluable information to families and donors, and identify schools’ areas of strength and weakness. It would also help make the case that a city’s Catholic schools are being held accountable and therefore should be eligible for funding through a public program like vouchers. Through a “prove your performance” pilot program, a savvy donor might be able to pull Catholic schools onto the trajectory that has made charters so successful over the past decade.