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Chapter 2: Increasing the Supply of Good Charters

Good charter school operators have demonstrated they can consistently produce impressive results, in large volume, with the very same children who are floundering in conventional urban schools.

Charter schooling is no longer a theory. It’s not in its experimental stage. It is a proven business model. But money and talent are now needed to build out additional schools in new markets.

As is always true when new enterprises are being expanded rapidly (whether it’s coffee shops or schools), it will be important to pay close attention to quality while the number of establishments rises. That is the subject of the chapter after this one. Yet just as important as maintaining the quality of charters is opening more of them. If charters get good results but relatively few children have any chance of enrolling in one, today’s vast pent‑up demand for better schooling (a million kids already on waiting lists!) will never be met. Rather, charter schools will be educational boutiques—lovely, but too rare to be a solution to the widespread mediocrity of public education today—and a whole generation of children and parents will continue to despair over the poor options available to them.

Found, expand, or support

There are three basic paths open to donors who want to help increase the supply of charters: found new schools; expand existing schools; or aid schools indirectly through support organizations. All three are important, for reasons we’ll touch on in the pages below.

Even philanthropists who lack large funds, or the time or knowledge to research the best models, can be helpful by pursuing the third option of indirect support. Nearly any donor can have important effects by giving money to charter school support groups with a strong track record. The Charter School Growth Fund, or the NewSchools Venture Fund—both of which invest the funds they pool from many sources into the highest‑performing schools in the country—are easy options. A funder who wants to play a role in one of the cities where the charter school pot is boiling hardest could donate to New Schools for New Orleans, a group that has launched or expanded 28 schools in a little more than five years. Or you could join in league with others to aid one of the many regional organizations that incubate and undergird new charter schools all across America (ranging from the Mind Trust to Building Excellent Schools).

The middle option is to help existing high‑quality school operators spread their successful formulas to additional campuses. Schools like those I will list later in this chapter in Tables 1 and 2 are some of the most effective new organizations of social uplift in the U.S. They have rejected the many excuses peddled to explain why so many urban public schools are dismal today, and have used innovations like extended school days, unconventional teacher recruitment and training, pioneering work at blending computerized instruction into classrooms, extra involvement of families in the classroom, special character‑building instruction for children, and simple higher expectations to get clearly better results. Rather than reinvent the wheel, some donors choose to back these proven racehorses.

Recently, most of the growth in charter school attendance has come in nonprofit schools that already have at least two campuses. Enrollment at multi‑campus nonprofit schools roared upward by 50 percent in the latest year for which we have data. That’s ten times as fast as the other two types of school—single campus, or for‑profit—managed to grow.

Extrapolating from recent growth, I estimate that in 2014, as this book goes to press, the proportion of students in each of the three major types of charter schools is approximately as follows:

Estimated proportion of students in each of the three major types of charter schools is approximately as follows

While networks of nonprofit schools are today’s booming sector, single‑campus charter schools still provide the majority of seats at present. And the first option for expansion‑minded philanthopists mentioned above—directly underwriting new solo schools—continues to offer exciting possibilities for “social invention.” Many of the experts we consulted for this book say that while it’s essential that existing networks of good schools be expanded as rapidly as possible, the charter school movement also needs additional startup operators and fresh approaches. (See the section “Continued school invention is necessary,” below.)

The invention of new schools is not for dabblers, however. It requires patience, wisdom, diligence, and an eye for finding social entrepreneurs with creative ideas and the capacity to follow through on them. Donors must assess their successes and failures in this area honestly, for new creation from scratch is riskier than replicating existing schools or supporting intermediary organizations.

Active educational donors like the Walton Family Foundation do all of the above. They are loyal supporters of the many intermediary groups that help schools launch and grow. They provide startup funding for new individual charter schools “in the hopes of fostering the next great education breakthrough,” as Walton educational adviser Bruno Manno puts it. And they help turn the crank that allows existing successes to reproduce themselves. “As long as huge backlogs of students remain on charter school waiting lists nationwide,” says Manno, “expanding existing operators must remain an important part of our strategy.”

New individual schools

New individual charter schools embody the inventive spirit of the charter school movement. When it comes to explaining why children learn in some settings but not others, there is still an enormous amount that we don’t know or fully understand. Moreover, there is no single model for success in schooling. Children vary tremendously in family backgrounds, in innate capacities, in temperaments, and in cultural surroundings. There is both room and need for a wide range of schools in order to open learning avenues for every child.

New schools developed by passionate reformers working directly with children right in classrooms, without heavy bureaucratic regulation or encumberments of conventional practice, are prime laboratories for discovery. Given how often successful new charter schools continue to be created in what was previously thought to be unpromising soil, it is clear that we still have a lot to learn and invent, and that helping individual school entrepreneurs explore new formulas is a prime way to deepen our educational expertise.

If rebuilding American education one school at a time seems inefficient, remember that every successful new school has the potential to copy itself later in new locations. Trial and error experimentation in single schools, careful tracking of what has worked, and then rapid expansion is exactly how nearly all of today’s most successful school networks—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, BASIS, YES Prep, and others—originated. Very often, donors with business backgrounds serving on the boards of these schools were vital in creating the growth plans that guided the transition from upstart academy to network of successful schools. Inventing and launching new schools will always remain an important part of chartering, and philanthropists will necessarily play a central role in that process of creation, both with their money and with expertise and counsel.

One of the donors most active in creating new charter schools is the Walton Family Foundation. Walton’s bread‑and‑butter educational‑giving strategy since 1998 has been to make direct startup grants to new charters. These grants are directed to local community partners—a gifted educator, a group of parents, a collection of local business people, an effective nonprofit. Walton screens carefully for qualified entities within local communities, requiring them to provide a detailed business plan, evidence of broad community backing, a positive credit report, and strong potential for delivering excellent academic results. The foundation looks for strong governance, solid teacher recruitment, intelligent curricula, and good plans for testing and assessment. Once they’ve selected their partners, they are active in helping them design and build a high‑quality school.

From 1997 until the end of 2012, Walton invested more than $311 million to support the creation of 1,437 schools. Their recipients primarily serve low‑income families who do not have the resources to select private or high‑performing district schools for their children. And to maximize its impact, the foundation targets certain states and cities where charter schools have the potential to achieve significant market share.

Though single-campus schools are still where a majority of charter students attend, most of the growth in charter schooling today is coming from expansion of successful multi-campus schools.

During their first decade, Walton “invested in charter schools wherever there was a decent law,” according to Carrie Walton Penner. They had projects in 38 large cities. Then they homed in on locations where they felt they had their best chances of being transformative. “What we’ve done in the last few years is really focus geographically,” says Walton Penner. “We have seven districts where we’re very deep. We work with innovative school leaders, in places where charter schools have a solid market share.”

Christopher Nelson, who directs the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, is also a fan of geographic concentration. His foundation’s recent focal point has been New Orleans. “When funders flood a market and create lots of high‑quality charter seats, we create a model that cannot be ignored.”

Kevin Hall, president of the Charter School Growth Fund, likewise believes in the power of a critical mass. “Funders should make it a priority to create more cities where there’s 20‑30‑40 percent share of students in charters. As we start seeing more metro areas where this is the case that will be a big ‘aha!’ moment.”

Returning to the tactics of the Walton Family Foundation, two thirds of their school startup grants have been to stand‑alone academies; the remainder built additional campuses for an existing school network. A typical grant will be $250,000. Subsequent awards are contingent on the school achieving performance goals. Schools that improve student achievement in reading, language arts, and math, as measured by reliable standardized tests, are what the foundation looks for. Regular assessments are required, with clear annual targets for improved student performance, and the foundation helps schools set strategies for refining their instruction methods to make sure they achieve those outcomes.

As an example of how timely philanthropy can kickstart a charter school, consider the Academy of Math and Science in Tucson, Arizona. Back in 2000, the Walton Family Foundation was researching ways to encourage new schools in Arizona (a hotbed for invention thanks to friendly charter school laws). Foundation officers discovered a nascent program serving 27 children in grades six through eight (most of them low income), housed in an old strip mall. The school was operating on a shoestring, but its founder was an impressive leader, an immigrant with advanced degrees and strong educational experience. She had created an education program based onE. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge standards of classical learning, plus traditional standards used in European schools, where she had taught for ten years. This founder was determined to demonstrate that all students can succeed academically if well instructed under a clear and rigorous curriculum.

Walton made an initial grant of $150,000 to the school in 2000. After a subsequent review of academic and fiscal performance, a subsequent grant of $67,100 was offered in 2003. Those small sums were sufficient to get the institution launched as a public charter school. Today, the Academy of Math and Science (AMS) serves 334 K‑8 students in Tucson, and its students pass Arizona’s standardized statewide test at the highest rate of any school in its zip code.

AMS has earned an “A” rating from the Arizona Department of Education, the top distinction given by the state. The school is accredited by the American Academy for Liberal Education, and the original founder remains its director to this day. Two sister schools have been established, one in Tucson and one in Phoenix, enrolling an additional 354 children.

Many other charter networks grew out of single schools in this same way. Democracy Prep Charter School opened in New York City’s central Harlem, quickly became the top‑ranked public middle school in New York City, and was then expanded into a chain of nine high‑performing schools sprinkled across New York and New Jersey. Newark’s North Star Academy, opened in 1997, later grew into the Uncommon Schools charter network that now includes 38 schools in three states. The Amistad middle school in New Haven, Connecticut, eventually birthed today’s 25‑campus Achievement First network.

In creating new schools, Walton likes to join forces with other donors, and foundation staffers point out that even small givers can be helpful in the initial stages of launching a new school. An early grant of just $10,000 can go a long way toward helping a charter school develop part of its curriculum. That same sum might pay for crucial legal services needed during the startup phase. Or that amount provided by a small partner in support of a larger investor could simply be used to help create 10 additional seats at a school. Alternatively, a $10,000 gift to a statewide charter school association might make technical assistance and advocacy programs available to an entire region’s charter schools. The point is that even modest gifts can go a long way in this kind of work, where funds are carefully husbanded.

Continued school invention is necessary

To those who might despair of saving the world one school at a time, Walton and other funders backing individual charter schools point out that all of the sector’s most successful networks began their life as a single school. The long‑term success of the charter sector, they argue, will depend on continued innovation in individual new schools, not just on expanding the scholastic chains that have already succeeded.

“We don’t yet have enough high‑quality models,” agrees Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans. “It would be unproductive for funders to get into the zero‑sum game of simply recruiting the existing operator chains into their cities. Everyone can’t just recruit everyone else’s operators. The funding community needs to set up new high‑quality operations.” Kingsland acknowledges that “early‑stage invention is higher risk, but funders have a responsibility to invest in it themselves rather than solely benefitting from someone else’s early‑stage investment.”

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, makes similar points. “We need to make sure we’re open to the creation of future KIPPs and Success Academies. Replication won’t provide enough supply, especially across multiple states with different populations and different policy environments.”

“I don’t think the charter movement wants to become totally a chain thing,” suggests Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “Mom‑and‑pop schools tailored to the needs of a particular community and affiliated with locally rooted institutions have merit. Moreover, the charter school movement doesn’t benefit from having only big operators turn up at the state house when political decisions are afoot.”

Most charter schools have heartbreakingly long waiting lists, and currently have to resort to lotteries to enroll students from this overlarge demand.

Kingsland, Rees, and Finn also strongly support multiplying successful schools, whether the task is turning one good school into three, or expanding a network of a dozen successful campuses into 50. “We need both replication and new,” says Rees. Smart donors will have a practical strategy for turning the corner from invention into first‑stage expansion. “Think about using funds to incentivize the single‑site schools you support to grow, either slowly by adding grade levels, or more abruptly by adding new schools,” suggests Christopher Nelson.

Reed Hastings, the Netflix founder who is also a major education donor and charter school strategist, suggests that “we need everybody who runs a great, single‑site charter school to open one more. Just from one to two. The vast majority of charter schools are single‑site schools. Those that have their sea legs, have operational sophistication, are doing well—these should be helped to open one more. And if the fives go to tens, and the tens to 20, that’s a huge acceleration of the rate of growth of charter schools.”

First, though, somebody needs to build a model worth copying. So in addition to making substantial startup grants of the sort that Walton and many other donors have offered to school inventors throughout the past two decades, some philanthropists provide planning grants and other forms of seed capital at an earlier stage of development. They find budding educational entrepreneurs who aren’t yet at the point of erecting an academy, but have concepts and techniques they want to explore. This type of early assistance has encouraged the blossoming of many innovative new individual institutions.

For example, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Gates Foundation have pooled money in a venture called Next Generation Learning Challenges. Among other things, this organization gives prospective charter operators planning grants of $100,000 to help them design and develop schools. The special focus of this partnership of donors is blended learning, a new type of pedagogy combining online instruction and individualized teaching which is still in its very early days nationally. Their planning grants encourage creative approaches in the personalization of computerized learning. By germinating successful new charters schools in this field the donors hope to create powerful prototypes that educators in other places will be able to copy.

The Silicon Schools Fund is another group with a similar focus and a willingness to provide early seed capital for charter schools. They are on a path to fund 25 new schools throughout the San Francisco Bay area during the next five years. Their schools are required to have good plans for deploying computerized learning technologies in personalized ways. The fund hopes that these startups will eventually become exemplars of the power of online instruction to enhance student achievement and individual success.

Yet another funder encouraging charter school developers to deploy blended learning creatively is the Charter School Growth Fund. Its Next Generation School portfolio mostly subsidizes existing operators of successful charter schools (versus the new operators that Silicon Schools cultivates), helping them replicate good schools and bring proven charter school practices to more and more students.

Replication of existing schools

While creating new individual schools in cities across the country is essential to continued growth and innovation in the charter sector, this slow creative process cannot meet existing public demand by itself. Most charter schools have heartbreakingly long waiting lists, and currently have to resort to lotteries to enroll students from this overlarge demand. To come closer to matching public appetites (while also becoming a bigger influence on the direction of public education more broadly) the charter school sector also needs to spin off reproductions of its existing successful schools as rapidly as funds and dedicated educators can be procured.

In some cities, funders conclude that the surest and fastest way to add high‑quality school seats is to take existing schools with well‑tested features and launch them in bulk. Donors are in essence extending the reach of existing charter school “brands” by creating franchises.

Most strong industries feature compelling brands. Consumers come to know a brand and what characteristics it offers. The brand is a shortcut to consistent, predictable delivery of those desired qualities. Brands not only signal valuable information to consumers, they also create powerful incentives for their owners to maintain quality so that the brand name remains strong. In addition, brands can achieve economies of scale that make them more efficient than stand‑alone labels.

Organizations that oversee a string of charter schools can provide services they’ve pioneered and tested in other locales, lending a substantial degree of confidence in their workability. The umbrella managers can offer local educators curriculum and procedures, means of teacher recruitment, and physical facilities. Headquarters can often provide these things at less cost and effort through their standing infrastructure. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel on book and technology buying, payroll services, food and transportation management, health benefits, and such—guidance can be gotten from the operator’s home office.

In certain aspects, all good multi‑campus charter operators resemble each other. The operator’s most important role may be to enforce quality control. If a particular school is not performing, it not only disappoints the children in its classrooms, it threatens the reputation of the operator. The overarching operator thus is less likely to accept excuses from on‑scene managers than might be the case if there was no larger brand to protect.

All of these reasons have fueled the expansion of today’s best‑known charter school networks. The demonstrated successes of those networks at repeating their formula in new places have created excitement and energy. The result has been to extend many chains of high‑quality charters across state and regional boundaries during the past several years.

In education jargon, these school chains are referred to as either charter management organizations (CMOs) or education management organizations (EMOs). The central difference: CMOs are nonprofit; EMOs are for‑profit.

In the past few years, nonprofit operators have been opening schools at a faster clip than for‑profit firms, but there are lots of schools under both umbrellas. As the year 2014 opens, we estimate that close to 1,400 charter schools are operating under the management of some nonprofit network, and that about 800 charter schools (plus several large online aggregations of students) are managed by one of today’s for‑profit networks. The remaining 4,200 charter schools are freestanding institutions or in very small school groups.

When discussing charter school networks, this book focuses more on nonprofit operators, simply because they are the ones philanthropists most often collaborate with (along with the individual, non‑network schools). Table 1, below, lists some of today’s large and otherwise prominent nonprofit operators of charter schools. Because these networks are growing so rapidly, the numbers of schools and students listed will soon be outdated, but these figures are current as of roughly the beginning of 2014.

some of today’s large and otherwise prominent nonprofit operators of charter schools

Some of today’s large and otherwise prominent nonprofit operators of charter schools pt 2

The for‑profit twist

While nonprofit chains are currently growing much faster than for‑profit counterparts, many school reformers believe for‑profit operators can be helpful in the race to improve public education. By more than 2:1, the education experts polled for this book by The Philanthropy Roundtable said they believe that “for‑profit entities that manage charter schools hold promise to grow the sector in a positive way.” The 69 percent of respondents expressing that positive view of for‑profits were then asked whether they thought philanthropy has a part to play in supporting for‑profit charters; 88 percent said yes.

The main downside to being a for‑profit is the potential to be demagogued for “making money on the backs of school children,” as opponents of charter schools like to charge. But there is a clear demand for‑profit school operators. The growth charted in Table 2 makes that clear.

Examples of national for‐profit charter school operators

Note that some cutting‑edge nonprofits like BASIS are experimenting with operating at least partly under for‑profit rules. All of the current BASIS charter schools are nonprofits, but the overarching management and development firm was set up some years ago as a for‑profit. (Carpe Diem Schools is moving toward a similar division.) The for‑profit company secures the charters, employs the teachers, and handles centralized functions. Among other benefits, this allows the schools to create 401(k) plans for teachers instead of pushing them into public retirement systems, and opens access to private capital markets, which could speed expansion.

To supplement its superb public charter schools, BASIS has also set up a new “BASIS Independent” division on a for‑profit basis to run moderately priced private schools. Private schools make better economic sense in some locations. At current BASIS charter schools, state payments per child come in at close to half of what conventional public schools in those same regions receive. Charging tuition is one way to get around those unfairly low reimbursement rates.

A private school also isn’t handcuffed by rules that sometimes squeeze charter schools. These include things like imposing union bargaining agreements, or prohibiting teachers who lack official certifications. One of the secrets to the success of BASIS has been hiring teachers who are content experts (like retired engineers, or former writing instructors), even if they don’t have traditional credentials.

The first two BASIS Independent schools are located in Brooklyn in New York City and San Jose, California. The San Jose school will serve 800 students, with tuition costing $22,000. The Brooklyn facility in the Red Hook neighborhood will have 1,000 seats for K‑12, and annual tuition of $23,500. After opening in fall 2014 both schools will grow in stages toward their full enrollments.

The reality is that there are excellent and poor schools operating under both for‑profit and nonprofit models.

The reality is that there are excellent and poor schools operating under both for‑profit and nonprofit models. The tax status of the umbrella organization running a charter school should not be a vital factor. The best charter operators—nonprofits and for‑profits alike—are very business‑like. Many are famous for squeezing pennies out of their operations, especially on the bricks‑and‑mortar side, so they can invest more in instruction.

Victoria Rico, chairwoman of the George Brackenridge Foundation which turned San Antonio into a hotbed of charter school growth, describes how for‑profit financial controls can translate into academic performance:

In addition to several nonprofits, we have two for‑profit operations among the schools we brought to San Antonio. One is BASIS Schools. Their financial savvy is a big part of their success. They are really good at building inexpensively, at staffing lean, and keeping costs down generally. Their schools don’t need a lot of land. They make do with half a gym, for instance, and they don’t worry about crowded classrooms. It’s all about high‑quality teachers for them—which they are able to attract because they are an uber‑cool place for an entrepreneurial instructor to work. They don’t waste a lot of leadership time reinventing processes. They focus on academics, not fancy facilities, and their successes feed on themselves. So even though they produce top results, and came here as a for‑profit, they are about the least expensive school to replicate. It’s amazing.

Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools urges that “philanthropists should support for‑profit operators to the extent they can. These organizations understand growth better than everyone else. Encouraging them will help the movement expand much faster.”

“At times it can be politically challenging to promote for‑profits, because of a few bad apples and exaggerated criticisms from opponents that have given ‘profit’ an unfair bad rap in anything educational. But it shouldn’t matter what your tax status is as long as you are running an effective charter school,” states Rees. “Laws are unfriendly to for‑profits in many states now. This needs to change, because they know scale and how to reach it, and we need them.”

If for‑profit investors are able to deliver consistent student achievement along with a steady flow of earnings, this will be a much more sustainable way to create new charter schools in the future, and it will draw both private capital and top managers into public education—which at present is badly undersupplied with both of those valuable resources. Donors willing to provide start‑up funding to for‑profit school operators when they are embryonic businesses might produce large benefits down the road.

When bringing in a multi‑campus operator may be smart

One niche where it may prove useful to bring in a proven charter school is for “restarting” a failing charter school. Every charter school is supposed to uphold a compact with local taxpayers—the school gains considerable autonomy from the usual bureaucratic restraints, and in return is accountable for producing better‑than‑ordinary results. As in every other human endeavor though, some charter schools disappoint. If charters are going to be defensible as a more effective alternative to conventional schools, then it is important to shut down those that don’t deliver.

The problem is, shutting down a school can be very disruptive to the students and local families involved. A “restart” that brings in fresh managers without locking the doors to children and families already engaged with the school can be less troublesome. It is the equivalent of your local grocery store or familiar airline continuing to serve customers even while new management sweeps in to establish all‑new operations.

Putting unproven educators at the helm during this tricky process may not have much appeal for a school’s overseers, though. Installing one of the successful networks to replicate their formula instead may be more attractive. The school can continue to serve the same students, without closure, even while strong yet low‑risk action is being taken to protect the expectation that a charter school should be more than mediocre.

The chain operator, meanwhile, doesn’t have to find and equip a building, or recruit a student body from scratch. He can focus on establishing the culture, curriculum, and teaching standards that allowed him to succeed in other places. So a “school restart replication” can sometimes be attractive to authorizers, parents and children, and school operators alike. (I touch again on school restarts later in this book, in the discussions of Mastery Schools in Philadelphia and the Achievement School District in Tennessee.)

There is another niche where donors might decide to clone existing charter schools rather than inventing new ones: in places where a state is at or near a binding cap on the number of charters allowed to open. Currently, 22 states impose an arbitrary limit on the number of charter schools they allow to operate. Texas is one.

The problems this can cause are illustrated in San Antonio. As in lots of other large cities, the educational outlook in San Antonio is grim for many minority and poor children. Only 60 percent of students in the city’s conventional public schools graduate from high school, and only ten percent of those will graduate from college within six years after starting.

With those stark figures in mind, San Antonio’s Brackenridge Foundation decided to take some dramatic action. The foundation set a bold goal: use the local nonprofit Choose to Succeed to bring 80,000 new high‑quality charter school seats to the city. Choose to Succeed helps charters in many ways. They aid the financing of new facilities (local banks treat the endorsement of Choose to Succeed as a quality stamp). They help in recruiting teachers and students. They offer introductions to neighborhood leaders, school officials, and businesspeople. They lend political support. An ally like this can greatly ease the process of locating and nurturing the sorts of star educators capable of establishing a high‑functioning school from scratch.

The Brackenridge board and chairwoman Victoria Rico, however, had to adapt their giving strategy to a harsh reality. The Texas legislature had passed a cap saying there would be no more than 215 charters allowed in the state, and very few slots remained. The sole source of wiggle room: once an operator receives a charter, that operator is permitted to replicate its schools in other places. Brackenridge realized that rather than start brand‑new schools that would bang into the statewide cap, they needed to convince high‑quality chains to expand to San Antonio, where one charter would allow them to open numerous campuses.

“We’d like to be able to support individual, startup charter schools,” says Rico. “But it simply isn’t practical in Texas, with the charter cap. We have to do whatever it takes to improve educational outcomes for our students. And for the time being, pursuing only charter operators equipped to replicate multiple schools under a single charter is our most promising option.”

Fortunately, that still leaves many great options. “I started out learning about KIPP, and slowly began to understand that KIPP was just one flavor that the sector had to offer. I am astonished by the diversity of models that exist and the results that so many have been able to achieve,” states Rico. So far Brackenridge has made great progress in drawing top operators like KIPP, IDEA, BASIS, Great Hearts, Rocketship, and Carpe Diem to San Antonio.

Some progress has recently been made on the policy front. During the summer of 2013, the Texas legislature voted to gradually raise the state’s cap on charter schools—to 305 by the year 2019. That offers an opportunity for the Brackenridge Foundation and other givers to encourage a more natural mix of new educational entrepreneurs and replicators. In the meantime, multi‑campus networks have been saviors in Texas.

A brief look at some fast‑expanding nonprofit charter school networks

The national brand that has probably received support from more funders than any other is KIPP Schools. This mushrooming network (141 schools in 20 states plus DC as of late 2013) currently serves 51,000 students, and is in the process of growing much larger. All KIPP leaders undergo a common training program, and every school subscribes to a set of principles called the “five pillars.” These emphasize high expectations; a longer school day; a commitment among students, parents, and staff to put in more than ordinary effort; a devolution of authority and resources to local principals and teachers so they can act quickly and flexibly; and a no‑excuses focus on student performance, as demonstrated on standardized tests.

KIPP’s headquarters provides individual schools with regular support and guidance, and monitors whether schools are implementing the five pillars faithfully and getting strong results. But each school operates independently or as part of a city‑level network. The considerable autonomy they grant to local managers leads some researchers to describe KIPP as employing the “franchise” model.

The most impressive fact about KIPP is their consistent, superior student performance. Though 86 percent of KIPP students are low‑income, and 95 percent are African American or Latino, more than 93 percent of those who complete eighth grade in a KIPP school graduate from high school, and over 83 percent go on to college. In conventional public schools with similar demographics, the college matriculation rate is 20 percent. KIPP students complete bachelor’s degrees at rates higher than the general U.S. population, and at four times the rate of other students from poor communities.

Never satisfied, KIPP is constantly appraising and refining its operations. For instance, when the organization noticed that two thirds of their first alumni cohorts who enrolled in college failed to complete their higher education on schedule, analysis was undertaken to see what they could do to make certain their students not only enter college but then stay there through graduation. KIPP has also discovered that they can have a stronger positive effect on neighborhoods and cities when they cluster schools more tightly and build up a high‑aspiration educational culture throughout a region, rather than plunking orphaned schools all across the country. (This illustrates one of the strengths of a replication strategy—the experienced operators have had time to adapt and evolve their techniques in ways that can improve outcomes.)

Another very successful charter management organization that is expanding to meet rippling public demand is Achievement First, which operates a string of schools in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Starting in 2003 with one school in Connecticut, Achievement First had by 2013 expanded (with philanthropic help) to 25 elementary, middle, and high schools, with more to come. The Achievement First network currently serves some 8,100 heavily poor and minority students.

Achievement First has made remarkable progress with its children. On the 2012 New York state math assessment, 88 percent of its pupils achieved proficiency, compared to 60 percent of all students in New York City, and a 65 percent of all students statewide. In language arts, 58 percent of Achievement First students achieved proficiency, versus 47 percent of all New York City students and 55 percent of all students in New York. In Connecticut, 61 percent of Achievement First high schoolers who took the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam scored a 4 or 5 (5 is the top score), compared with only 33 percent of students across the U.S. Remarkably, more than 75 percent of Achievement First high-school graduates receive a college bachelor’s degree within six years of graduating high school. (The overall college graduation rates for African‑American and Latino adults are 18 percent and 11 percent respectively.)

A third highly impressive charter network now in the process of replicating itself on additional campuses is Uncommon Schools. At present, the organization serves about 9,000 students at 38 charter schools across Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Eight out of ten of its students are low‑income, and 98 percent are African‑American or Hispanic.

KIPP students complete bachelor’s degrees at rates higher than the general U.S. population, and at four times the rate of other students from poor communities.

Like other fast‑growing high‑quality charter operators, Uncommon Schools gets remarkable results with its underprivileged children. In recent years, Uncommon closed 56 percent of the achievement gap between its African‑American students and white students in the same state. In 2012, 100 percent of the network’s high‑school seniors took the SAT exam, and they achieved an average score 72 points above the national average.

Aspire Public Schools was one of the very first charter management organizations. Netflix founder and entrepreneur par excellence Reed Hastings put up the original money and many of the ideas that animated Aspire. Its formula took immediate root, and within 15 years of its 1998 startup it was educating 14,000 students annually in 37 schools. As a group, Aspire’s students significantly outperform the average score on California’s statewide achievement exams, and they come out head and shoulders above comparable low‑income students in conventional schools. Two thirds of Aspire schools, with their heavily minority and low‑income student bodies, have already exceeded the state target for “academic excellence.” Indeed, if you treat Aspire as its own school district, it ranks in the top 5 percent for performance and achievement, when compared to similar size districts all across California.

What is most impressive about Aspire schools is that they get better and better every single year. On California’s Academic Performance Index, Aspire’s total score has increased, without fail, each year since the network was founded. In 1999, Aspire students averaged 406 on this statewide assessment. By 2005, that was up to 520. In 2010, Aspire students reached 648, and their results jumped further to 720 in 2011, and 780 in 2012—a remarkable record of relentless improvement. And here’s a more practical statistic: Throughout the past four years, 100 percent of Aspire’s thousands of graduates have secured admission to a four‑year college.

Rocketship Education, also originating from Silicon Valley, is a fifth example of a fast‑expanding charter school manager. The brainchild of philanthropist and Silicon Valley CEO John Danner, it is well known as a pioneer in the field of blended learning—mixing computerized instruction and face‑to‑face tutoring to create highly personalized instruction for each student. Like many other charters, Rocketship focuses primarily on low‑income and urban students, many of them not native English speakers. Unlike some, its blended learning model requires fewer teachers, which gives it economic advantages that have made it easier to expand. And Rocketship achieves better results than comparable conventional schools.

Rocketship’s first school opened in San Jose in 2007. Its success soon led to a total of eight Rocketship schools in the city, serving 4,500 pupils. Despite this rapid growth, the organization still has 2,500 families on its waiting list, hoping to enroll children. (For details on how Rocketship’s classrooms and schools operate, see Blended Learning: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Tech‑assisted Teaching published by The Philanthropy Roundtable.)

In 2013, Rocketship opened its first school in Milwaukee. With strong support from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a $1 million expansion grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, technical help from the Gates Foundation, and investments from many other donors, Rocketship will open eight high‑quality schools in Milwaukee over the next five years, and another eight in Nashville, where its first school opens in 2014. The organization has also won charters to operate in New Orleans, Indianapolis, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. Their goal is to eventually operate in 50 cities and serve one million children. The combination of broad philanthropic backing and Rocketship’s low‑cost business model is what makes this expansion conceivable.

Rocketship’s financially attractive model gets results. Even though 90 percent of its students are low income, and 75 percent come from non‑English speaking homes, fully 80 percent of Rocketeers score at the “proficient” or “advanced” level for math on the California Standards Test. That’s nearly the same as the 83 percent rate achieved in California’s ten most affluent districts.

The BASIS charter school network is yet another high‑performing group now undergoing expansion with help from givers. It operates a dozen schools, with more in the works, in Arizona, Texas, and D.C. (For a glimpse into BASIS classrooms, see pages 70‑74 of Closing America’s High‑achievement Gap: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Helping Our Most Talented Students Reach Their Full Potential, from The Philanthropy Roundtable.)

“There’s no magic here. It’s just a four‑letter word: Work. We just work harder,” says network co‑founder Michael Block. BASIS administers a rigorous, A.P.‑based curriculum to all students, across the board. Craig Barrett, former CEO of the Intel Corporation, has been a key philanthropic supporter of BASIS. He explains in an interview that, “We start on the premise that any fourth‑grade child who is at grade level can come to BASIS and succeed in our accelerated program.”

The network’s intent is to challenge every single student. “We have been severely underestimating all kids,” argues Block. Science is a particular focus of BASIS schools. In sixth grade, students begin taking biology, chemistry, and physics as separate subjects. Math is also a sharp focus. All students will have completed Algebra I by the end of their seventh‑grade year. Beginning in sixth grade, students are required to pass comprehensive exams in all core subjects in order to be promoted to the next grade.

This mirrors the demanding course schedule of many top‑performing European and Asian schools. To build the right culture and expectations from the start at the new BASIS satellite in D.C., the network imported several experienced instructors from its Arizona flagship schools. BASIS negotiates an initial salary individually with each teacher. It also offers performance‑based financial incentives. Teachers of A.P. courses, for instance, earn an additional $100 for every student who makes a grade of four on the A.P. exam, and an additional $200 for every student who earns a five (the top score). Rather than traditional sick days, BASIS gives teachers a “Wellness Bonus” of $1,500. They lose a predetermined amount of that for each sick‑day taken.

The results of all of this are outstanding. On the 2012 Arizona assessment test, BASIS students outperformed statewide averages in math, reading, writing, and science in every tested grade. The average BASIS student takes 10 AP exams, and the typical score is 3.9. In 2012, BASIS students outscored national averages on A.P. exams in 23 different subjects.

Approximately 1.5 million American students take the PSAT test every year, and on the basis of its scores about one percent of all high‑school seniors are selected as National Merit Scholar Finalists. In 2012, more than 25 percent of all BASIS seniors earned that high recognition. International tests like the PISA exam show that BASIS students are competitive with the very best scholars anywhere in the world.

Though they have to date focused on middle schools and high schools, BASIS is now piloting a kindergarten‑to‑fourth‑grade school in Tucson, Arizona. So a full K‑12 system will soon exist under their model. The network’s major goal is to maintain its extremely high and consistent level of quality as it continues to grow with philanthropic support. And growth is a high priority for the network’s leadership. “All cities should have a BASIS,” according to the chain’s managers.

A quite different charter school operator now in expansion mode is Great Hearts Academies. It created a string of Arizona campuses that produce impressive results. Great Hearts offers an academically rigorous, classical liberal arts education with an emphasis on the great books. As of 2013, it had 16 schools operating in the Phoenix area, and more on the way, including one in Texas. There are currently more than 9,000 students on waiting lists hoping to attend one of the Great Hearts facilities. (Consult Closing America’s High‑achievement Gap for more details on this school’s operations.)

There’s no magic here. It’s just a four‑letter word: Work. We just work harder. We start on the premise that any fourth‑grade child who is at grade level can come to BASIS and succeed.

Great Hearts has no electives. All students take the same challenging sequence in math, science, foreign language, fine arts, and humanities. Students learn Algebra I in seventh grade, which puts them all on path for calculus in eleventh and twelfth grade. Three years of Latin begin in sixth grade. Medieval history is required in eighth grade, and music and poetry in ninth and tenth. The “core reading list” for elementary students includes Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. For middle and high school, the list includes The Aeneid, As I Lay Dying, Crime and Punishment, Federalist #10, Henry V, Plessy v. Ferguson, and The Republic.

Great Hearts also forms its students morally, seeking to “graduate thoughtful leaders of character who will contribute to a more philosophical, humane, and just society.” Students wear uniforms and adhere to an honor code. The schools try to instill nine core virtues in students: humility, integrity, friendship, perseverance, wisdom, courage, responsibility, honesty, and citizenship. One “philosophical pillar” of the network’s culture is that “sarcasm, bad will, and apathy are toxic to the work of teaching and learning.” Great Hearts vigorously recruits instructors it believes will be exceptional classrooms leaders, regardless of their backgrounds or state certifications. “We place stock in content expertise and pedagogy, which don’t necessarily track with teacher credentialing,” states donor and co‑founder Jay Heiler.

On 2012 statewide assessments, Great Hearts students outperformed the average Arizona student in every tested subject and every grade level. Of its five high schools with 2012 graduating classes, between 83 and 97 percent of seniors were headed to four‑year colleges. Fully 13 percent of all seniors at Chandler Prep, one of the network’s high schools, were named National Merit Scholarship Finalists.

Replicating at an earlier stage

Funders who want to nurture strong schools that are at an earlier stage of expansion than the national brands described in the last section also have opportunities. They can provide growth capital to schools that have proven themselves locally but exist on only a few campuses. The charter school movement is still at an early stage, and many additional star operators are likely to emerge in the years ahead. Savvy donors can help identify and propel these nascent operations.

As mentioned earlier, even today’s largest and most impressive charter chains all began as solo operations. Aspire Public Schools had only 200 students in one charter school as its first school year came to a close in 2000. Today it has 12,000 students in California alone. In Chicago, Noble Street College Prep opened in 1999, and only became an operator of multiple campuses after its success brought calls for more such classrooms, and a willingness among donors to help pay for them. Today, the Noble Network of charter schools is still entirely Chicago‑centered, but it has grown to 15 campuses—with plans to continue its rapid growth so it can educate 15 percent of Chicago’s public high school students by 2020.

Or consider the trajectory of YES Prep. In 1995, a group of parents, teachers, and community leaders alarmed by the dysfunction at Rusk elementary school in Houston created Project YES. Under the leadership of Teach for America corps member Christopher Barbic, in 1998 this became YES College Preparatory School, a charter middle and high school. Two years later, this little sprout housed in trailers on a deserted parking lot had become the top‑performing high school in Texas.

That caught the eye of local philanthropists. The Brown Foundation made a generous gift in 2001 that allowed the school to move to a permanent site. Fully 100 percent of the first class of seniors earned acceptances at a four‑year college, though 86 percent had no previous college attendees in their family. Then in 2003 the George Foundation of Fort Bend County gave YES a grant to copy its formula in a second and third school. By 2005 YES Prep was not only attracting repeat support from local donors, but also its first national funding from backers like the Gates Foundation. Today, with 8,000 students in Houston on 13 campuses and phenomenal results that have it ranked as one of the top schools in the U.S., YES Prep is busily preparing to launch itself into Louisiana and Tennessee, and very likely other states after that.

There are at present lots of very fine charter schools with just one campus, or a handful of locations in neighborhoods of a single city. These could be ramped up by donors willing to help the proprietors repeat their successes in new buildings. Just a few quick examples of the kind of solo operations or tiny chains that could potentially be scaled up:

  • E. L. Haynes in Washington, D.C.
  • DC Prep, also in the district
  • DaVinci Schools, four highly innovative charters in Los Angeles
  • Match Education, with five small schools in Boston
  • Brooke Charter School, a three‑school operation in Boston with 3,700 families on its waiting list
  • Brighter Choice, a group of schools in Albany, New York, that includes single‑sex elementary and middle schools for both boys and girls
  • the Tindley Network, just transitioning from one school to several in Indianapolis

It is also sometimes possible for a donor to draw a large charter school operator into a significant new field, where their operational excellence can bring good education to an entirely different population. An example would be the Early Years Initiative of Washington, D.C.’s CityBridge Foundation. An important part of this program was to help KIPP and DC Prep set up their first efforts at early‑childhood education. Between 2008 and 2012, approximately $3.5 million of CityBridge funding was allocated to these top‑rated operators to allow them to create excellent pre‑K programs (their first efforts with that age group) in the nation’s capital.

The initiative has had great success: children from disadvantaged backgrounds who enter the program as three‑year‑olds leave for kindergarten on roughly equal academic footing with peers from middle‑class households. Katherine Bradley, co‑founder and president of CityBridge, believes that charter schools offer the best vehicle for early‑childhood schooling, just as they so often do at the primary and secondary level. “We decided to do our work through charter schools,” she says, “because that’s where we found partners with the capacity to innovate, run more than one school, and grow a great idea onto a larger scale.”

Intermediary organizations that donors could support

Some donors may choose to invest in charter schools indirectly, by pooling their funds with charter school intermediaries in ways that allow them to help many different schools simultaneously. Intermediary organizations expand the industry not by establishing schools of their own but by providing funding, expertise, and assistance to numerous founders, sponsoring groups, or existing schools so they can successfully create, expand, or sustain operations. Intermediaries provide research, practical guidance, and advice to school creators, while also holding them accountable.

Venture philanthropy groups such as the NewSchools Venture Fund and the Charter School Growth Fund are intermediaries that funnel hundreds of millions of philanthropic dollars to charter schools. Both are demanding partners—only about 9 percent of the schools that apply for funding from CSGF are accepted. The rigorous ways that these two groups scrutinize potential partners can be instructive to donors.

Both organizations use multi‑stage assessment processes to vet organizations for possible investment. CSGF does a “blind” quantitative analysis which compares the academic performance of the candidate to comparable organizations. Then they look carefully at the leadership team, the school’s academic philosophy, its operating model, its financial viability, and its potential to grow.

NewSchools begins by ensuring that a school fits its current investment strategy, will serve low‑income students, has the ability to sustain itself and grow, and may eventually be able to have a positive influence beyond the students directly served. Schools that pass these first screenings then get evaluated for their management team, financial model, quality of product, and local market demand. Both of these funds typically invest in a small number of organizations and make large multi‑year commitments.

The candidates who are finally selected receive not only money but also intensive early‑stage help with planning and strategy. Schools that then perform well become eligible for larger and larger grants to help spur expansions. The philanthropic capital that these intermediaries inject early on generally allows the recipient charter schools to become excellent right from the outset. That attracts students, and the public funding which follows them, and helps schools become self‑supporting quickly. “Our value is not only in aggregating funds and providing practical services, but also in providing first‑class management assistance to the operators of these schools,” summarized Ted Mitchell while he was CEO of NewSchools.

Charter school incubators are another class of intermediaries that can be enormously helpful when setting up a new school. Launching a school from scratch requires successful accomplishment of many tasks. One must recruit and train teachers. A physical facility has to be procured, and made useable. Operating procedures on everything from educational principles to discipline to food service must be established. There are books and furnishings and technology to buy and install. It is necessary to organize a board of directors. State laws have to be understood and followed. There are always funds to be raised.

Realizing that it can be difficult to handle all of this without being overwhelmed, the charter sector has responded by creating organizations called incubators. These provide a paycheck to aspiring new charter leaders as they train in important skills that running a new school will require. Most incubators are very selective, and choose a small number of promising leaders who are willing to commit to a one‑ or two‑year fellowship, and then meet certain guidelines while running their school. In addition to their classroom training, incubators offer lots of nitty‑gritty help in areas like getting to know local regulators, politicians, and community stakeholders. After the fellowship ends, the leaders launch their schools—with the continuing support and assistance of the incubating organization.

Recent studies show that when charter schools start off poorly, they rarely become good performers later on.

It is risky to launch a school with underprepared leaders. Recent studies show that when charter schools start off poorly, they rarely become good performers later on. (See the CREDO findings in Chapter 1.) Conversely, those schools that start off with a bang tend to remain high performers over time. “To improve quality, funders would be wise to invest in incubation organizations that help new schools get off on the right foot,” suggests Neerav Kingsland.

So it is very good news that recent years have seen a rapid growth of incubator organizations. Thanks to expanded incubation, funded by philanthropy, some cities have been able to set much higher targets for the number of new high‑quality charter seats they’ll have available in the future. Following are examples of the sorts of incubators that have helped fuel this progress:

  • Building Excellent Schools has a strong record as an incubator of more than 50 high‑quality schools, in 12 states so far. They offer intensive one‑year fellowships that support carefully selected participants to spend a year designing and then launching an urban charter school. All of the schools they incubate are customized to their community, and operated independently (not in any of the established management chains). Fellows do a residency in a successful operating charter school, and visit more than 30 of the highest performing charter schools in the Northeast during their training, which is centered in Boston. An alumni network, regular summits, annual awards, and follow‑up training are offered to extend the support and sharing of information far beyond the initial incubation period.
  • The Mind Trust awards $ 1 million grants to carefully selected educational entrepreneurs willing to found and lead excellent new charter schools in Indianapolis. Through their incubator program the group aims to bring 10,000 new high‑quality charter seats to Indianapolis. Some of its awards have gone to operators like Rocketship and KIPP to help them bring their models to city. Other funding has gone to create new school concepts, like Phalen Academies, a startup built on a blended-learning model. Mind Trust supporters who have made this incubator possible include about a hundred individual donors and 36 foundation or corporate donors in recent years—ranging from the Lilly, Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations to Cummins Inc. and Kroger.
  • Get Smart Schools is an incubator that aspires to prepare 85 new school leaders and launch at least 50 autonomous schools across Colorado. Its tools include a yearlong leadership training program for men and women aiming to open schools, an even more detailed fellowship program which brings educational entrepreneurs right to the moment of starting or taking over a school, plus a state‑approved alternative program for licensing principals. Of the 15 new schools (enrolling 5,000 students) that Get Smart has incubated far enough to gather performance data, 12 are already getting more achievement growth out of their students than the average school in their district, despite enrolling a student population that is 76 percent in poverty. The incubator encourages the schools in its network to keep their standards high by awarding the “Get Smart Schools” mark to those with excellent results.
  • Charter School Partners intends to help launch 20 new schools in Minnesota during the next five years, while simultaneously helping its 30 existing partner schools move “from good to great” in as many academic areas as possible. Donors have included the Carlson Family Foundation, Best Buy’s Children’s Foundation, General Mills, the Minneapolis Foundation, Cargill, other organizations, and many individual donors.
  • Tennessee Charter School Incubator focuses on two urban areas within the state: Nashville and Memphis. It was the first incubator to operate across a state instead of just in one city. Prospective school leaders get intensive preparation in the management, academic, and entrepreneurial skills needed to run an academy. Like other charter incubators, it seeks partners whose credentials indicate their school is likely to be demanding and high performing. The organization’s goal is to bring 20,000 new high‑quality charter seats to Tennessee. In 2012 the new schools it helped open outscored metropolitan Nashville Public Schools by at least 10 percentage points in every subject tested on the state’s annual assessment.
  • New Schools for New Orleans is a major reason that nearly 80 percent of all students in New Orleans now attend a charter school. NSNO offers local educational entrepreneurs the intensive training and management services that all good incubators feature, as well as teacher instruction, help with recruiting and screening board members, and intensive financial, legal, and operations support. It supports both new individual schools and expanding chain schools. In addition, NSNO has taken on an influential leadership role in Louisiana educational politics. It works to improve charter‑related policies, and helps state authorities design processes that encourage excellence and equity in New Orleans schools.

An effort that offers charters equal footing

In some cities, there may be one other indirect way for funders to reinforce charter schools. They can support the movement to create Collaboration Compacts between school districts and charter schools. Led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this is an effort to bring together political leaders, different school operators, and community stakeholders in a region to hammer out agreements for sharing ideas, buildings, teacher training, enrollment systems, measurement tests, and other resources among different types of schools.

This is not strictly charter school work—the Compacts simply aim to make it as easy as possible for families in particular neighborhoods to get good schooling, with the idea that authorities should be more agnostic than in the past about what sector a child is instructed in—conventional school, charter school, or parochial school. But of course putting charters on an “equal” footing with conventional schools (and in Boston and Philadelphia including parochial schools in the mix as well!) is itself quite a victory for supporters of educational alternatives that have long been relegated to step‑child status.

Gates recently granted $25 million to seven cities to cement their “Compacts.” Some seem more successful than others. In Philadelphia (where public education has been riven with dissension), the Compact is being administered by a group called the Philadelphia School Partnership that aims to shift local focus toward the quality of instruction that children get rather than what kind of school it takes place in. The Partnership includes any school that serves primarily low‑income kids—which deals 85 charter schools (educating 26 percent of Philly’s kids) plus all of the Catholic archdiocese schools into the mix. Partnership resources are being shared, and additional outside funders are being rallied to supplement funds beyond the $2.5 million Gates has already awarded. The money will be used for things like building a common website where parents can compare and select schools from a single entry point.

The charter school revolution has only begun to unfold on a mass level. There remain many opportunities for donors to be leaders.

How successful this effort will be in bringing peace and better performance to public schooling remains to be seen. At least rhetorically, though, this is the charter school dream: the educational establishment becoming even‑handed about school structure, and focusing instead on who gets the best results. With Gates leadership and financial support, 16 cities are currently experimenting with Compacts, including New York City, Denver, Boston, Hartford, and New Orleans. It is possible that as schools begin to cope with the new Common Core requirements now unfolding across the U.S. this kind of educational détente and collaboration could increase. Philanthropists will want to keep an eye on this development and consider adding their impetus if the Compact strategy shows promise in one of their target cities.

Other kinds of support: advocacy, business aid, data systems

In addition to funding charter school incubators, philanthropists can make it easier for charters to thrive by supporting charter school advocacy groups in their states. These groups chip away at policy issues that are important to charters, often easing the task of school creation in the process. Chapter 5 of this book looks in depth at the need for advocacy, but to give an indication of how this kind of work can fuel school growth, here are a few examples of the kinds of tasks that today’s donor‑supported advocacy groups help charters with:

  • Lobbying state legislators to allow equitable funding for charter schools. (Most states reimburse charters at a much lower rate per enrolled student than they pay conventional schools. There is no fair justification for this; underfunding of charters was just one of the ways that opponents were appeased when charter laws were first voted on.)
  • Encouraging regulators to help charters find and pay for buildings. (Many states currently provide no facilities funding, only paying for instructional expenses once the school is already set up. Needless to say this makes life difficult for many school founders.)
  • Resisting efforts by opponents to stifle charter schools by capping their allowed numbers at some arbitrary low level. (Even in states where cramping caps have been imposed, charter school advocates have sometimes been able to convince officials to exempt charter schools that demonstrate superior results, creating some wiggle room for serving additional children.)

Another way donors can strengthen charter school numbers is by bolstering the internal operations of extant, successful operators. The Tiger Foundation, Broad Foundation, Fisher Fund, NewSchools Venture Fund, Charter School Growth Fund, and other givers have supported the central offices of multi‑school charter operators by providing grants that enable them to build their organizations. Sometimes these support the hiring of senior staff members, or contracts with outside experts who handle finance, human resources, business planning, or the data systems used to assess students, teachers, and schools. Other times the grants pay for long‑term planning, or help develop the internal capacity of these operators to manage more campuses. Many philanthropists have provided general operating support to the top nonprofit charter operators, in the belief that strengthening these enterprises who have already proven themselves is the best way to bring the benefits of charter schools to more of the hundreds of thousands of children aching to attend but lacking a space.

There are also intermediaries across the country, very deserving of philanthropic support, that bolster charter schools from within. These provide on‑site support to keep extant schools academically strong and financially healthy. They provide networks and meetings with peers where charter school leaders can learn from each other. They offer continuous training and leadership development to educators. You’ll be introduced to scores of these groups in the course of this book.

The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation has been an important backer of intermediary organizations that bolster the charter movement broadly. They have built support organizations at both the state and national level to help charter schools maintain their independence and excellence. The California Charter Schools Association and the Texas Charter Schools Association have both been important beneficiaries of Dell support.

A special effort of the foundation has been to encourage meaningful definitions of quality, and to demand self‑policing within charter groups in order to keep standards high. Dell has helped fund customizable training programs that hundreds of schools in these trade groups have used to improve the skills of their teachers and administrators. Paying for online data‑sharing platforms where schools publish their results has been another practical contribution.

Honest and rigorous measurement of school outcomes is a deep interest of Dell. Having invested tens of millions of dollars in charter schools over the last decade or so, the foundation has found that management can get trickier, and academic performance less consistent, when an organization expands to five or more schools. After uncovering this common tipping point the foundation began to complement its expansion funding with support for strong performance‑management systems that help educators monitor and maintain their quality across an entire portfolio of schools.

Dell staffers also developed a tool for screening current and potential grantees. This assessment program factors in student‑achievement results, leadership capability, and resource management. It generates performance comparisons to surrounding schools, to other charter operators, to different regions. This helps the foundation identify areas of strength and challenge, zero in on best practices, and target their funding.

Good data helps Dell program officers provide valuable feedback to school operators. They report that educators find it particularly useful to see their performance compared in detail to other high‑performing charter organizations from other places. Central headquarters expenditures across different charter networks are the kind of information that operators would otherwise find very hard to assess.

Dell’s analytical tools make it easier to see how many of the charter schools they fund are improving their performance from year to year. The foundation likes to compare networks not only to their previous years’ results but also to surrounding schools in their host district. It is partly the power of their statistical tools that has allowed the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to zero their grantmaking in on charters capable of strong annual performance growth—often double‑digit rises in recent data.

Lots of opportunities to act

The nearly 7,000 charter schools that have been formed from scratch over the last two decades represent one of the great self‑organizing social movements of our age. It is an independent citizen response to heartbreaking educational failures that the responsible public institutions showed no capacity to solve on their own. And nearly all of the innovation was powered by philanthropy.

Yet even as charter schooling matures as a philanthropic field, there remain many opportunities for donors to be leaders, and even pathbreakers. The charter school revolution has only begun to unfold on a mass level. Wise donors will choose their path carefully. Do you want to create new school models? Do you want to clone the best of existing schools? Would you rather work on improving average schools? Maybe pushing for the closure of poor schools is where you can best make your mark. You could combine two or more of these efforts, or concentrate on one. Think and plan how you can have the greatest effect in your area.

By inventing new schools, reproducing high‑quality existing schools, and supporting myriad intermediary organizations that bolster charter schooling, funders have already changed the lives of millions of underprovided children. Nearly three million American youngsters will attend charter schools in the next school season, and the number climbs fast every year. Given the extent to which demand for charters among families currently outstrips supply, continuing to open new high‑performing schools will remain a powerful imperative for the foreseeable future.

As inspired education reformers and their allies in American civil society open the country’s next 7,000 charter schools, the other challenge for donors will be to keep a close eye on quality controls, on the supply of talented teachers and principals, and on the government policies that speed or block school success. Each of these factors will be addressed in subsequent chapters.

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