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Chapter 5: Encouraging Public Policies that Help Charters Flourish

If charter schools are to truly thrive, the philanthropic investments discussed in this book will not be enough. States will also need to adopt charter‑friendly public policies. We have a ways to go in this area.

There are still eight states—Kentucky, Nebraska, Vermont, West Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Alabama—that flatly disallow chartering. There are six other states that have only trivial numbers of charter schools (in the single digits). States like Maryland, Virginia, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, and Wyoming burden charters with suffocating regulations (applications often require hundreds and hundreds of pages of paperwork), constrict the number of schools or authorizers, or seriously underfund charters in comparison to conventional schools.

In Virginia, for instance, only local school boards are allowed to authorize charters, and any schools these authorities decide to allow to operate must operate under that district’s personnel policies and union agreement—effectively outlawing the flexible staffing that is central to charter success. Virginia funding for charter schools is parsimonious and indeed nonexistent in many crucial categories. And charters must be reapplied for every few years in Virginia, where the process is laborious.

The Center for Education Reform rates charter school laws every year. In their latest report card, only 13 states earned an A or B for the quality of their charter law. And within states there are often regions and cities where the law is applied unevenly, limiting local access to charters.

Even in average‑to‑better states, the public financing for charter schools is routinely lower than what is paid to district schools. Nationwide, the funding offered to charter schools for each child enrolled averages only 80 percent of what it is for conventional schools. In urban districts, per‑child funding for charters is just 72 percent of what other public schools get. Only if charter school supporters cry foul and push for more equitable formulas will these per‑child allotments to the millions of youngsters in charter schools be made fairer.

There are restrictions on a foundation’s ability to involve itself in public advocacy. (See the chart “What’s Allowed...?” later in this chapter, and consult an experienced attorney for particulars.) Nonetheless, there remain many ways in which funders can help make the case to both policymakers and the general populace on behalf of more charter‑friendly public policies. Savvy funders have become very active on this front over just the last few years, because they found they had to.

“Our goal has always been to create more high‑quality options for more low‑income children. But we learned that many times that depends on the regulatory and legislative environment surrounding charter schools,” says Jim Blew, director of K‑12 education reform at the Walton Family Foundation. So new tactics were tried. “Investments in the policy arena can be very powerful means toward creating healthy and flourishing schools.”

“The best amount to give to policy work will vary from state to state, and city to city,” explains Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans. “First, a donor should determine what her goals are for charter growth. Then she should examine what the central requirements are for that to occur: Fixing policy obstructions? Developing school leaders? Finding teacher talent? Cultivating community support? Take a look at your specific circumstances and divvy funds accordingly.”

Dipping into a big tool bag

As we’ll discuss throughout this chapter, changing policy often demands a range of interventions, from research to public relations to direct lobbying. An essential starting point for philanthropists is to support the professional organizations and affinity groups that have sprung up across the country to explain and promote the interests of charter schools.Keep the regulatory arm of the government at bay so charter schools can do what they do best: spend money differently, use technology differently, reconfigure how students spend time learning.

Donors can also be very helpful in paying for basic problem analysis. A donor might compile lists of unfriendly laws and regulations so they can be revised. Another could calculate and spell out the precise ways that the financing formulas discriminate against charters. This kind of public‑interest research is prime territory for enlightened philanthropic support.

Lightening the bureaucratic load on charters can be a vital public service. “If we’re tasking these schools with succeeding in the same neighborhoods and with the same populations where traditional schools have failed, they have to be allowed to innovate. That means protecting them from getting burdened with regulation,” argues former Arnold Foundation vice president Caprice Young. Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools agrees. “Keep the regulatory arm of the government at bay so charter schools can do what they do best—spend money differently, use technology differently, reconfigure how students spend time learning.”

Leading donor Katherine Bradley urges civic leaders: “Don’t just act like a regulator to all these incredible operators who want to come do this work. Make it easy for them. They need the freedom to tell their best leaders ‘You can change your hours. You can change your curriculum. You don’t need to follow the pattern here.’ They need to be able to give each of their campuses more autonomy. Those things help performance. It may be messy, but they need to be able to do that in order to succeed.”

Another way funders can be helpful is to aid schools, and the sector as a whole, in creating savvy public‑relations strategies. “This is a huge opportunity, and there is a very big need for donors to help with this,” says Christopher Nelson, whose Doris & Donald Fisher Fund incubated KIPP and other exemplary charter schools. “We have to figure out how to brand and message these schools more positively” in the face of attacks from opponents, suggests Nelson. The Fisher Fund is a leader here, having created a specific division that provides public‑relations consulting to all of the schools they give grants to.

There is a dedicated Fisher employee who handles all of KIPP’s communications. Some of the principles that he has followed in the past:

  • as soon as a school has results, share them via report cards
  • be candid when schools don’t meet standards
  • focus on relationships with parents; it’s crucial that families like the school
  • built relationships with pastors, business leaders, others in the community
  • encourage schools to have an open‑door policy with reporters; get them into classrooms

The kind of direct service that Fisher offers its grantees could be copied by other funders if they have the expertise. Or money could be earmarked so schools can hire freelance assistance with communications. Nelson suggests that, “donors can fund people like Gary Larson to help with crisis management or framing longer‑term messaging and media relationships. Our charter school movement in California would not be where it is today without his sound advice. He and others like him are necessary. Certain national nonprofits are also figuring out how to be helpful in this area—like StudentsFirst, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.”

In general, working directly with local schools and families will be the optimal way to discover what arguments most need to be voiced in a particular region. There are also some broad narratives and facts that could be laid before the public to improve understanding of charters. Few schools have any incentive to spend time or money on that type of long‑term image building, though. Foundations could render a public service by taking on some of this meta‑storytelling.

An example would be the campaign created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to publicize the positive results that have accumulated in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina destroyed that city’s old school structure and sparked a giant shift toward charters. The foundation recently launched an “informational campaign that highlights Louisiana as a national model for transforming public education.” In a series of online, print, and radio messages, attention is being drawn to the sharp increases in student competency in New Orleans since its charter explosion took place. Here is a sample ad:

Sample Ad

It’s worth noting that charitable tax law allows philanthropic organizations to sponsor public educational campaigns, and even educational sessions for policymakers. There is evidence that such sessions on the benefits and proper roles of charter schools can be a low‑cost, high‑leverage strategy for donors. Victoria Rico of San Antonio’s Brackenridge Foundation funded site visits to other places where charters were burgeoning so that key players from her community could observe their potential first hand. The strategy deepened local interest in charters, and by the 2012‑13 school year 26 percent of all San Antonio schoolchildren were in charter schools, giving that city the tenth highest market share in the U.S.

Philanthropists hoping to shape the policies under which charter schools operate may sometimes need to act in sectors outside of public opinion and politics. Scholar Rick Hess has suggested a long‑term effort at teacher colleges that could be constructive. Philanthropists, he urges, might offer research funds and endowments to schools of education that are willing to support professors who are open‑minded about charters (a commodity scarce as dragons’ eggs within education schools at the moment). The payoff on such a venture would have to be measured over a decade, but planting and watering inside faculties of education intellectuals who are willing to give charter schools their due could eventually cumulate into important research and policy ideas useful in protecting charters from ideological hostility.

In some locales, donors will want to move beyond research and messaging into more active organizing. Many donors play active roles as “harbormasters” in their cities, connecting schools, families, the public, media, civil rights groups, businesspeople, and local leaders. One of the best ways to safeguard and expand charter schools is to support the building of grassroots coalitions in the communities that benefit from these schools.

Once the ball is rolling, these grassroots efforts often take off on their own and require no further support. Donor Katherine Bradley describes just such a spontaneous success in Washington, D.C.:

We wanted the vision of charter school success to penetrate so deeply and widely in D.C. that if we got a new less‑supportive mayor, he or she would hear from everybody the strategies that work. It’s not traditional philanthropy; I don’t even know what you’d call it—field‑building, maybe—but we spent a good bit of our time supporting in this area. And now there are hundreds and hundreds of people in D.C. who we don’t control at all who go off and start things, and write blogs, and create support groups, all by themselves.

Sometimes litigation is needed to overcome obstacles such as those mentioned in this chapter. Lawsuits are costly, but helpful rulings can echo across hundreds of schools, for decades. In addition to considering particular local battles, there are public‑interest legal organizations that methodically defend charter school interests as part of their regular mission. Philanthropists interested in this area might support groups like the Institute for Justice, the Charter School Advocacy Program of the Atlantic Legal Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, and the Landmark Legal Foundation. “Investing in advocates who are fighting in courts of law can be very helpful,” notes Nina Rees.

The necessity of politics

Within the past few years, supporters of charter schools have realized that defending and extending these institutions also requires direct participation in politics. Ballot initiatives, accepting appointments on boards and commissions, lobbying, and campaign activity (recruiting candidates, donating money, issue advertising) are sometimes essential. This can be necessary on various local and state levels. Foundations can, by law, only get involved in limited amounts of defensive lobbying, and no politicking whatsoever. But they can support nonprofits dedicated to building grassroots support and engaging in broad advocacy on behalf of charters, including some lobbying. Moreover, donors and their families are free as individuals to make non‑tax‑deductible payments for direct professional lobbying, gifts to 501(c)(4) organizations that focus on influencing policymakers, donations to 527 groups that inform voters about candidates’ positions, or straight contributions to charter‑friendly candidates for office. (See chart on page 104 “What’s Allowed?” for shorthand descriptions of some of these options.)

“It took me a while to understand that an advocacy and political effort has to go hand‑in‑glove with the charitable effort,” admits education donor Betsy DeVos, who is now also chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group. “Ultimately, elected officials make decisions about legislation that can either permit or preclude meaningful educational reform.”

“Advocacy does pay off,” agrees Jim Blew of the Walton Family Foundation. “We have seen real progress in places like Florida, Louisiana, Indiana, Tennessee, and more recently Georgia and D.C. Reformers would not have succeeded in those places if we sat on the sidelines and didn’t get involved in some tough political fights.”

“I can tell you from personal experience,” Blew continues, “that you get much, much more bang for your charitable buck when you’re simultaneously involved in lobbying or elections. It’s not twice the impact per dollar. It’s an order of magnitude difference per dollar.”

“For years when education‑reform funders talked about advocacy, they were really talking about communications,” says Chester Finn of the Fordham Foundation. “They tended to think that if you made a compelling argument, the reforms would take care of themselves. It took them a while to engage the full spectrum of advocacy efforts.”

Finn confesses:

Like many think‑tank types, I’m partial to the somewhat naïve belief that solid data and good analysis will ultimately win. What we came to discover, however, was that the opponents of real reform were not interested in our arguments. They had different incentives and would stoop as low as necessary to thwart any attempt at meaningful change. Reformers eventually realized that they would have to get their hands dirty. Strong‑arming policymakers, raising campaign funds, recruiting candidates—it’s all politics, with all the messiness and sharp elbows that politics can bring. In that effort, research and analysis are necessary, but not sufficient. We kept bringing flashlights, but you can’t fight fire with a flashlight. You have to fight fire with fire.

Victoria Rico of the Brackenridge Foundation will never forget the moment she decided to take the leap and get involved in active advocacy for charter schools. She had just watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, which fired her determination to bring high‑quality charter schools to her home community of San Antonio.

The decision to actually go through with the plan is still vivid in my memory. I worried about all of the enemies that I would make; I worried about burning political capital that my family had built up in the community for generations. Ultimately, we moved forward, and I’m so glad that we did. Yes, we did encounter opponents, but we also attracted many allies from all across the political spectrum. Most importantly, we’re now making a huge difference in the lives of disadvantaged children here.

All of these men and women caution that advocacy and politics are not simple tasks. “Make no mistake, advocacy is hard,” says Blew. “The teacher unions, the administrators, the school boards—they have very‑well‑developed infrastructures for both lobbying and political campaigns. The teacher unions have the very best political operation in the country.”

Part of this is sheer volume of resources. Keep in mind that in a city like Los Angeles alone, about $23 million is pulled out of teachers’ paychecks every year and sent to the union. Much of this is available for politicking.

We can’t just play defense every two years when there’s an election. We have to be continually on the offensive as well.

“Don’t underestimate the opposition,” Blew warns. “They’ve been at this for years and they’re really good at it. To get it right you have to be patient and you have to work over time. If you’re not vigilant, the opposition will come back and will overturn your progress in the next cycle.”

Neerav Kingsland offers similarly blunt advice: “Know that the unions will oppose charter schools, because they’re a threat to the market share of labor. That doesn’t mean you have to position yourself as anti‑union. Charters can be framed around educator empowerment and giving students options. You just need to be prepared for the arguments.”

Where they are unable to block charters altogether, opponents push measures that restrict the ability of the sector to expand or to innovate. Favorite tactics include “freezing” charter school numbers at a low level, often even below existing levels. Or demanding uniform classroom practices that take away the ability of teachers and principals in charters to improvise. Or exactly prescribing the number of minutes schools must devote to particular subjects, again tying the hands of classroom teachers who tend to get better‑than‑typical results by employing non‑typical techniques. Opponents even continue to promote the argument, nearly a quarter century into the charter school revolution, that charters are unconstitutional. The very favorite argument of charter school opponents is that they are “undemocratic,” and suck resources away from efforts to elevate America’s poor and unfortunate.

The best defense against that argument is to let charter school families speak for themselves. Most charter school families are low income—a majority of all charter students are eligible for federal school lunch subsidies. Close to seven out of ten charter school students are black, Hispanic, or other minority. Organizing strong and vocal networks of parents and neighborhood allies is extremely helpful in getting regulators and politicians to allow the growth of high‑quality charter schools.

Grassroots organizing is also a powerful force for dispelling common myths that perpetuate wariness of charter schools. Philanthropists interviewed for this book agree that one of the charter sector’s most pressing weaknesses has been its inability to cement in the public mind a compelling message about what charter schools are and how they can help improve student outcomes. “There is a huge need for donors to help change the perception that charter schools are anti‑teacher, or part of a movement to privatize and profit from education,” suggests Christopher Nelson of the Fisher Fund. “We need to counter that message and replace it with a more positive one.”

“We have great human stories to share,” notes Nina Rees. She urges supporters to make sure these stories reach the ears of the wider public, “along with the great data we now have proving that charters can lift children to higher levels of achievement, success, and happiness. On both the national stage and state by state, we need people to hear our message and start demanding more high‑quality charter schools in their communities.”

Educational consultant Caprice Young agrees that “it’s important for us to share positive data, and to organize parents of charter school students—plus parents of students on charter school waiting lists! We also have to be mindful, though, that opposition will not simply fade away when people see high‑quality charter schools getting great results. We’re demanding a shift in the power structure that is threatening to powerful elements of the status quo. We can’t just play defense every two years when there’s an election. We have to be continually on the offensive as well.”

What’s allowed in policy advocacy?

Nonprofit organizations that funders can use or create to promote policy change

501(c)(3) Private Foundation

(example: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

The crux: Tax exempt. Donations are tax deductible. Contributions and grants are publicly disclosed. Generally cannot lobby (advocate for specific rules or legislation with elected officials or their staff) except in “self defense.” Can provide funds to charities that lobby with funds from other sources. Can directly inform public opinion and public policies through research and communications. Prohibited from engaging in political campaigns. Main advocacy role is to conduct policy research and run public‑awareness campaigns.

501(c)(3) Public Charity

(example: KIPP)

The crux: Tax exempt. Donations are tax deductible. Contributors can be anonymous. Can advocate for public policies. Can engage in a limited amount of lobbying. May engage in nonpartisan election activities like debates, candidate forums, voter assistance. Prohibited from engaging in political campaigns. Main advocacy role is to push for public policies it believes in.

501(c)(4) Social Welfare Organization

(example: StudentsFirst)

The crux:Tax exempt. Donations are not tax deductible. Contributors can be anonymous. Can advocate for public policies without limitation. Can lobby without limitation on topics related to its mission. Can participate in political activity, including urging particular votes and depicting candidates in positive or negative ways. Also allowed to engage in active electioneering so long as that is not the “primary purpose of the group,” and the electioneering is relevant to the organization’s primary purpose. (These same basic rules apply to 501(c)(6) Trade Associations, which often do similar work in the policy arena.)

527 Political Action Committee

(example: National Education Association Fund)

The crux: Tax exempt. Donations are not tax deductible, and they are capped at $5,000 per year. Donors are publicly disclosed. Only minimal lobbying allowed. Can make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, including directly to candidates, subject only to federal reporting and dollar requirements. Main purpose is to directly supply campaign expenses in support of specific candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation.

527 Independent‑expenditure PAC (Also known as a Super PAC)

(example: AFL‑CIO Workers’ Voices PAC)

The crux: Tax exempt. Donations are not tax deductible, and they are unlimited. Donors are publicly disclosed. Only minimal lobbying allowed. Can make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, subject only to federal reporting and dollar requirements, but these cannot go directly to candidates or be coordinated with candidates. Main purpose is to inform voters of the positions of candidates on public issues, or the merits of ballot initiatives or legislation.

The grassroots antidote to criticism

Happily, families in low‑income communities have demonstrated time and again—in Florida, in New York, in the District of Columbia—that they are quite willing to rise up in large numbers to advocate vigorously for charter schools and other forms of educational choice. Many funders have come to appreciate the need to support and amplify these kinds of popular demonstrations. Savvy donors make it an intrinsic part of their giving to help parents organize and project their voices to policymakers.

Take the Brighter Choice Foundation. It has made Albany, New York, one of the more interesting charter markets in the nation, with 13 charter schools (10 of which receive support from Brighter Choice) in a relatively small city. The foundation has built and protected this market share with aggressive parent organizing. One of their events drew 3,000 students, parents, and community members.

Eva Moskowitz, creator of the Success Charter Network that operates 20 schools in Harlem and other low‑income neighborhoods of New York City, has repeatedly mobilized thousands of parents to attend public hearings to demand much‑needed space in public school buildings. As a former city council member and outspoken education committee chair for New York City, Moskowitz has become a political dynamo on behalf of the charter school movement generally.

Families for Excellent Schools trains parents to advocate directly for their local school. It began working with parents who had children in 65 charter schools in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, encouraging them to become educational advocates, and training them how to effectively speak and act on their own on behalf of their schools. Director Jeremiah Kittredge previously worked as a public-school teacher and a labor organizer at SEIU, a 2‑million‑strong union of service workers, so he brings unusual advocacy tools to the table.

The biggest grassroots education rally of recent years was one that donor John Kirtley helped pull together in Tallahassee in 2010. It was the largest political demonstration in Florida’s history, gathering 5,600 people in defense of educational alternatives for families. The scene was captured in reporting by Philanthropy magazine’s Christopher Levenick.

That March morning, thousands of the attendees arrived after overnight bus rides from distant parts of the state. Parents chatted. Clergymen greeted newcomers. Excited schoolchildren clutched signs with hand‑lettered slogans like, “Don’t Take Away My Dreams,” “Education Through Choice,” “Put Politics Aside for Me,” and “My Future is Priceless.” It was a predominantly black and Hispanic crowd, gathered for a single purpose: to convince the Florida legislature to strengthen the state’s school choice program.

Marching at the head of the procession, alongside the Reverend H. K. Matthews, an 82‑year‑old African‑American minister who had protested in Selma, Alabama, was John Kirtley. A Tampa venture capitalist who had donated and raised millions to improve schooling for low‑income families, he helped organize the march after more than a decade of focused, sustained evolution from a simple funder of charitable efforts into someone who knows how to coordinate his donations with legislative efforts and political giving. Kirtley is a supporter of all forms of school choice, but his story is a case study in effective education‑reform advocacy that can guide supporters of charters and public‑school choice whether or not they would also advocate for choice systems that give parents access to private and parochial schools.

Kirtley’s 501(c)(3) charity Step Up for Students channels money directly to children and families for tuition and other school expenses. Like all (c)(3) organizations, IRS rules forbid it from asking the public or legislators to support specific legislation. A (c)(3) charity can, however, execute activities like communications, research, and grassroots outreach with policy implications.

Kirtley’s 501(c)(3) had long done as much advocacy as the rules allow. It contracted with third‑party researchers to test the effectiveness of the schools and programs it supported. To respond to a hostile press, it set up an aggressive communications shop. For president of the 501(c)(3), Kirtley had hired a longtime public‑school teacher who was also the former head of the Pinellas County teachers’ union.

It took me a while to understand that an advocacy and political effort has to go hand-in-glove with the charitable effort. Elected officials make decisions that can either permit or preclude meaningful educational reform.

“It was an interesting situation,” Kirtley says. “By statute, all the kids in the program were poor, and I can all but guarantee that their parents vote overwhelmingly Democratic. But their representatives in the legislature consistently voted against this program, and many of them denounced it on the floor. So we needed to educate those parents, so that they would know what their representatives were doing.” Step Up for Students hired a grassroots manager who immediately began reaching out to African‑American ministers and other community leaders.

Making connections to parents and ministers was one thing, but Kirtley knew he also needed to take his case directly to legislators. A vigorous legislative advocacy campaign would require stepping outside the framework of a 501(c)(3) entity, so Kirtley launched a 501(c)(4) group to handle political issues. This required vigilance to keep strict accounts of their time and resources, so that (c)(3) dollars would not be illegally spent on (c)(4) activities.

With a 501(c)(4) wing, Step Up for Students could now take its case directly to legislators. It was not only a matter of being in Tallahassee and lobbying individual policymakers about pending bills. Now Kirtley and his colleagues could also help their friends and allies reach out. “One of my favorite examples is a radio ad we did in Jacksonville,” explains Kirtley. “There was an African‑American state senator who was completely opposed to our efforts. Well, we went to his minister and had him tape an ad for us. ‘Senator,’ the minster’s booming voice concluded, ‘do the right thing.’ We aired the ad on all three of Jacksonville’s black radio stations.” The senator got the message.

Even with the ability to communicate directly with legislators, Kirtley soon realized he needed a third capacity: political engagement. “Early on,” he recalls, “I had a very kind African‑American state senator take me into his office, close the door, and say, ‘John, I know you’re right, and I know this is the right thing to do. But I came here to do ten good things. If I do your one good thing, the teachers’ union will take me out in the next primary. I will never get to the other nine good things. So I can’t do it.’” Kirtley realized that he needed to make it safe for Democratic legislators to vote for the program—and that meant providing the money and muscle to offset the influence of the unions.

The first order of business was creating a 527 Political Action Committee. Under federal law, an independent 527 organization operates to influence the election of candidates to public office, without expressly endorsing a particular candidate or campaign. So long as they register with the IRS, publicly disclose their donors, and file periodic reports, 527s can raise unlimited amounts and use these resources for “electioneering communications.”

“Our 527 was able to talk about candidates in a favorable or unfavorable way,” explains Kirtley. “But we never used trip‑line words like vote for or vote against. We could spend $1 million on a radio ad that said, ‘Senator Smith stands for Florida’s students—call and thank him!’ But we could not and would not pay 33¢ to stamp a single postcard that said, ‘Elect Senator Smith!’”

Throughout the course of three election cycles, from 2002 to 2008, Kirtley’s independent 527 invested $4.5 million in various legislative races. Most of the money went to primaries. “Florida,” notes Kirtley, “is so thoroughly gerrymandered that there are very few contested general election races.” Through the 527, Kirtley and his allies became one of the state’s largest investors in electioneering communications.

Forming a 527 organization was only one aspect of Kirtley’s political efforts. The other involved bundling hard money—personal checks written directly to a candidate’s campaign. “Look, campaigns need money to run for office,” says Kirtley. “I became a bundler for candidates.” He traveled around the country, fundraising from fellow donors who were concerned about schools. He discovered that relatively modest sums could yield real influence. “In Florida,” he explains, “an individual can only give $500 per candidate, per election cycle. It’s pretty rare to see a candidate in a relatively low‑income House district raise more than $30,000 or $40,000 for the primary. So I would go out and try to raise $10,000 to $12,000.”

The culmination of this charitable, legislative, and political work came in 2010. On March 23, the day of the march on the state capitol, the Florida Senate cast a historic vote. (The House joined it a day later.) The various school‑choice measures that inspired the march passed with strong bipartisan support. “This time, we had Democratic co‑sponsors for the bill,” smiles Kirtley. “We had a majority of the black caucus, and all but one member of the Hispanic caucus.”

“In my experience,” concludes Kirtley, “if you want to achieve any real progress in education reform, you cannot just have a (c)(3) capability. You must also have advocacy and political capabilities. If your goal is to change K–12 policy, you’re going to have to change K–12 laws. And if legislators refuse to change those laws, then you’re going to have to change those legislators.”

A treetops strategy can also work

While Kirtley built a mass movement to support new approaches, another way to go is to cultivate and support the emergence of new administrators at the apex of school systems who will try new things. Michael Bloomberg has been one of the pioneers of this strategy. As mayor of New York City, he employed the “new leaders at the top” method to break up ineffective old ways of doing things within his city’s massive education bureaucracy.

In 2002, Bloomberg wrestled control of the city’s public schools away from the long‑dysfunctional New York City Board of Education. The take‑charge mayor and the new school chancellor he installed, Joel Klein, then brawled for a full decade to institute ambitious reforms from the summit of their administrative pyramid. They opened scores of promising new charter schools in low‑income areas. They closed more than 100 of the system’s lowest‑performing schools. They rewrote the rules governing teacher tenure (before the new regulations went into effect, 97 percent of eligible teachers received tenure; in 2012, only 57 percent received tenure). They increased the budgetary authority of principals, and raised teacher pay.

Student test scores began a long, slow, steady climb. The Bloomberg method of working from the top down, which has led to disappointment in many cities, showed that it could also succeed, given the right combination of leadership and circumstances. “One way to fix schools is to install leaders who will champion important political and policy change,” Bloomberg summarizes. (The next test will be to see if those changes endure now that a mayor with very different priorities has taken over in New York.)

Taking off his mayor’s hat and working as a private philanthropist with an estimated net worth of $27 billion, Bloomberg backed efforts similar to his New York City strategy in a few other places. A notable example was Louisiana, which became a crucial laboratory for education reform while rebuilding its post‑Katrina school systems. In 2011, Louisiana held important state school board elections.

Bloomberg first helped 36‑year‑old John White bring his ideas and energy to the state. White was a Teach For America corps member who went on to serve for five years as a top deputy to Joel Klein in New York. In May 2011, White was appointed superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District. He hit the ground running, immediately implementing a three‑year strategic plan, trimming the central office by one third, and overhauling the failing schools still in the RSD.

Not only Bloomberg but also other education‑reform funders nationwide took notice. Working with parents and local reform advocates, they decided to back similar reformers who had declared for the fall elections of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Among other duties, that body appoints the Louisiana superintendent of education. Using PAC and 501(c)(4) monies, Bloomberg spent $330,000 to help elect reformist state school‑board members. His outside money supplemented local donations of about $500,000 backing the same innovators.

In January 2012, a new board was inaugurated. It had a 9‑2 supermajority in favor of school choice and accountability reforms, which included charter schooling. The new board made its first order of business the appointment of John White as superintendent.

As a philanthropist, I “look for places where strong leaders are putting kids first,” says Bloomberg. “We look for local leaders who are championing important political and policy changes and making real strides. We look for places where we can help prove what’s possible to improve student success on a large scale.”

“I’m optimistic that we can succeed,” Bloomberg concludes. “Partly because we’ve seen here in New York City what a difference leaders can make. And partly because I believe the entire country is reaching a tipping point in terms of recognizing the severity of this problem—and demanding action.”

Bloomberg’s time as mayor has ended, and he is putting even more of his time into philanthropy. If he continues to forcefully back education reformers, Bloomberg could have a large energizing effect on charter school expansion and education innovation generally. “Along with the Gates and Walton families, Bloomberg is an 800‑pound gorilla of education reform,” says one D.C.‑based expert. “Nobody knows exactly what he’ll do, but we know it could be really big. He’s hiring some of the most impressive people in the field. He is ed reform’s $20 billion question mark.”

National programs as an alternative to home‑grown organizing

Kirtley and Bloomberg are exceptionally involved, enterprising, and well‑resourced education philanthropists. But there are plenty of ways for less superhuman donors to mix charitable giving, issue advocacy, lobbying, and political donations in integrated efforts that lend strong positive jolts to the cause of education reform. For philanthropists who don’t have the time or money to build their own custom campaigns from scratch like Kirtley and Bloomberg, the simplest method is to fund some of the excellent advocacy now being churned out by groups supported by myriads of donors.

One of the biggest and best organized of these organizations is StudentsFirst, created by Michele Rhee. As in New York City, school powers in Washington, D.C., were stripped from a dysfunctional school board and transferred to the mayor in 2007. After the mayor named Rhee his chancellor of schools, she transformed the horrendous D.C. schools into one of the most exciting reform experiments in the country, with safety, teacher quality, student achievement, and family satisfaction on the rise.

Despite this record, opponents eventually managed to chase the hard‑charging Rhee and her boss, mayor Adrian Fenty, out of town. (Rhee’s deputy Kaya Henderson picked up her mantle, however, and kept D.C. schools on a brave reform path—such that almost half of all D.C. students now attend charters.) Reeling in the aftermath of her political loss, Rhee asked herself how this had happened.

“I didn’t figure in the power of the unions,” was her answer. So she went about creating a new national organization aimed at evening the balance of power a bit by making sure the interests of children and their families are represented in future political battles. (This reporting is based on an extensive interview The Philanthropy Roundtable conducted with Michelle Rhee, which is available as a transcript at philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/k_12_education/interview_with_michelle_rhee.)

If education reform was to have any hope of advancing, Rhee and her philanthropic supporters decided, it would need to match the political strength of its opponents. “We settled on a plan to create a national advocacy group that would raise money and build membership with the goal of providing political muscle to leaders who stood for change. We had no name, no staff, no business plan, no location. All we knew was that it was going to be big.” There were two concrete goals: a nationwide membership of one million and a budget of $1 billion.

If education reform was to have any hope of advancing, Rhee and her philanthropic supporters decided, it would need to match the political strength of its opponents.

Rhee immediately started reaching out to the country’s leading education‑reform donors. She called Jim Blew and asked him to request a commitment of $100 million from the Walton family. She went to New York to meet with Ted Forstmann, who pledged $50 million. She met with John and Laura Arnold in Houston, Eli and Edythe Broad in Los Angeles, and the Fisher family in San Francisco. With initial funding in place, she looked for a way to draw attention to the new group. In December of 2010, she donned a smart tweed outfit, went on “Oprah,” and announced the launch of StudentsFirst.

StudentsFirst is a full‑spectrum advocacy effort, with 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), and 527 PAC capabilities. “I strongly believe that until we can change the laws and policies that are in place,” says Rhee, “we’re never going to really see a shift in the trajectory of the reform momentum.” Much of the effort involves 501(c)(4) issue advocacy, but Rhee notes that “part of it is also electoral work, to be quite frank.”

Rhee has seen the phenomenon time and again. “Many politicians will say, behind closed doors, ‘Yes, I get your issues. And I agree—I have kids—but I can’t do anything about it. The powers that be will not like that. If I go with you, they will run somebody against me, and that would mean I may not be here in the future. And I think the world is a better place if I’m in office.’”

Of all the education‑reform advocacy groups, StudentsFirst stands out for the scale of its ambitions. “We are a membership organization with more than two million members across the country,” says Rhee. “They are a very active membership, which we’ve found is crucially important. Not only do you need the dollar resources to back a candidate, but you want boots on the ground, too. If you have people who are willing to knock on doors and man phone banks on behalf of politicians, that is a huge help.”

Rhee set a second‑year goal of increasing StudentsFirst to two million members. They made it (the lowest level of membership is free and only requires professing support and providing an e‑mail address). “For our third year, we are actually changing the focus. We’re putting much less emphasis on membership acquisition, because we feel like two million members is a very strong base on which to build.”

The new goal is inspiring a committed group of activists. “What we are focused on now is growing the number of what we call our core,” says Rhee, “people who not only are opening and reading our e‑mails and will take an occasional action here or there, but people who are willing to go out there and mobilize their neighbors to lead the charge. We have a goal of having several hundred of what we call transformation team leaders, and active transformation teams all over the country through our third year.”

StudentsFirst doubled its expenditures in each of its first years. Financial support for the group now extends way beyond the initial group of mega‑philanthropists who helped Rhee launch. A wide base of small and medium donors is central to the organization’s strength.

“Our goal is to achieve a steady state of about $200 million a year,” she explains. “A lot of people look at that number and say, ‘Well, that’s just astronomical. What are you going to do with $200 million every year?’ Well, let’s compare that with other advocacy groups that we’re fighting against every day.” The two national teacher unions, Rhee points out, have an annual budget of $2.2 billion, and they spend at least $500 million on political activity.

The reform agenda for StudentsFirst is broad and sweeping. At its heart, it boils down to three key areas: elevating the teaching profession, empowering parents, and spending taxpayer dollars wisely. “There are 37 specific policies for which we advocate within those three areas,” says Rhee. “Whether it’s a fight to lift the charter cap in New York or the constitutional amendment in Georgia, we’ve been able to take on singular fights and get a lot of momentum and win. The problem for a long time has been that, once it’s won, philanthropists and politicians say, ‘Okay, done! Educational reform, check the box. We can move on now.’”

That strategy, says Rhee, allows her opponents to return later and roll back the individual wins, picking them off one at a time. To counter those retrenchments, StudentsFirst is running a rolling offense, constantly advancing on a broad range of initiatives. “This has to be a sustained effort over a 5‑ to 10‑year period to get all 37 of these policies put in place. It’s not just situational fights. It’s a comprehensive strategy, and it’s going to take a long time, and you’ve got to be in for the long haul.”

In its first three years, StudentsFirst has been ineffective in some states but has strung up clear victories in others. “In the 17 states where we’re active,” smiles Rhee, “we’ve passed more than 115 policies. If you read our policy agenda, you’ll know these are not soft policies. They have been thought of as extraordinarily controversial for a long time. We’ve helped to push some important ballot initiatives, like the ones in Cleveland and in Georgia, and we’ve also helped to defend places like Michigan where the unions were trying to roll back some very strong reforms. Finally, we supported more than 100 political candidates in the 2012 election—with a win rate of about 75 percent.”

StudentsFirst isn’t the only game in town. Some other organizations are viewed as just as effective in shepherding legislation and changing opinions. These include Stand for Children, the strongest state chapters of 50CAN, Democrats for Education Reform, the American Federation for Children, and others sketched below in the subsection “A menu of other advocates.”

State‑level advocacy

Because most charter policies are set by state legislatures, all states with a charter law (and many of those without one) have at least one statewide organization dedicated to educating policymakers and the public about the need for stronger charter policies. Some are independent nonprofits governed by parents, community and business leaders, or education reformers. Others are membership‑based “associations” or “leagues” of charter schools with a strong emphasis on policy issues. Throughout the years, these organizations have successfully led efforts like these:

  • Lifting or eliminating caps on the number of charter schools allowed in a state
  • Expanding the range of bodies that can authorize schools in a state
  • Increasing funding for charter schools
  • Opening up access to facilities financing
  • Reducing restrictions on charter school autonomy
  • Repelling efforts by opponents to weaken charter laws

Private philanthropies that cannot legally advocate on a large scale can fund these groups that include lobbying as part of their work. A pioneer in this area was the Gates Family Foundation of Colorado (not affiliated with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). More than a decade ago, when charters were just nascent in their state and most others, Gates invested in a one‑day conference that brought in crucial players involved in passage of the Minnesota and California charter laws. According to one Gates Family Foundation officer, that conference “lit a fire under several Colorado policymakers and educators.” Within six months, charter schools were legal in the state.

Gates went on to provide vital seed funding for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, which became an influential statewide advocate. It has won policy victories in expanding facilities‑financing for charters, among other vital goals. As of the 2013‑14 school year, Colorado has almost 200 charter schools, which enroll more than 10 percent of all public school students in the state. In addition to things like technical assistance, training, and lots of information, the Colorado League supplies member schools with a list of legislative priorities and help in getting important policies enacted.

Another donor that has nurtured state‑level advocates is the Chicago‑based Joyce Foundation. They provided multiple grants to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools that allowed information about that state’s charters to be disseminated to key public and policymaking audiences. Along with practical services like a teacher job fair and a service for matching board members to schools, the Illinois Network’s 145 schools get a range of advocacy assists. These range from published profiles that celebrate the achievements of charter school graduates to lobbying the legislature and governor’s office on behalf of its members. In 2009, the network helped pass a law that doubled the number of charter schools permitted to operate in the state.

The California Charter Schools Association, the largest such organization with 1,130 member schools, is another effective state advocate that has been built up with philanthropic funding. Like others it provides useful help like financial, legal, and instructional training. But its most vital role is to keep school leaders engaged in legislation and policies that affect charter schools. Among its creative contributions is an online Legislative Advocacy Toolkit created to assist parents in contacting elected officials. The Association is also conducting a legal battle, funded by donors, to enforce Proposition 39, a successful ballot measure in California that requires local school districts to provide charter schools with facilities that are “reasonably equivalent” to those which students would enjoy if they were attending a conventional district school.

The Texas Charter Schools Association is also heavily involved in litigation and advocacy. Its current priorities including lifting charter school caps and improving the financing of charter schools. The association was founded with support from the Dell, Walton, and Gates foundations.

The Arizona Charter Schools Association is one of the most active and successful state advocates. With 17 percent of all students in the state now enrolled in charters (and rising), Arizona has a constituency for charter‑friendly policies that has gotten too big to brush aside. The state association has been active in promoting excellent charter schools for both low‑income and middle‑class communities (Arizona has done much better than other states at producing some schools that serve the latter neighborhoods).

Not all state charter associations are equally effective. Some tend to prioritize membership numbers over school quality. This can cause them to take neutral stands on measures that would raise academic demands, tighten authorizer scrutiny of charters, or close poor‑performing schools. Donors can play a role in strengthening these groups and making their influence as salutary as possible.

A menu of other advocates

Philanthropists fighting to make sure their investments in charter schools are backed up by intelligent and supportive public policies will need to join forces with a range of organizations, employing varied tactics in different places at specific times. Along with the national and state groups discussed above, here is an illustrative selection of other advocates that donors might partner with, depending on the kind of policy intervention needed.

  • The donor‑supported National Alliance for Public Charter Schools exists to increase public support and political understanding of charter schools. Its Washington, D.C., operation toils on a wide range of policy and regulatory issues. It also has a special state advocacy and support team that focuses intensely on topics that come up in high‑priority states. Its affiliated arm, the Alliance of Public Charter School Attorneys, provides guidance on legal and courthouse strategies. The alliance aims to ensure that parents, the press, and policymakers see chartering as a powerful and permanent improvement in public education.
  • Stand for Children is a 501(c)(4) organization that labors to elect public officials who support education reform and wider school options. It maintains a local presence in 11 states. In 2011, it was instrumental in supporting a bill in Indiana that resulted in more comprehensive teacher evaluations, a performance‑based compensation model, and an end to “last in, first out” layoff policies. It also played a part in helping reelect a pro‑reform school board majority in Denver by reaching 21,000 voters via phone banks and canvassing.
  • The American Federation for Children is a 501(c)(4) with offices across the country that advocates for school choice. It has a special focus on school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs that vulnerable children can use to attend private or religious schools, but it also promotes and defends charter schools. The group was founded in 2010 and is led by education donor Betsy DeVos. It works closely with the Alliance for School Choice, a 501(c)(3) which provides guidance, strategies, quality-enhancement, and growth support for schools of choice.
  • The Center for Education Reform, based in D.C., advocates for policy change on national, state, and local levels. It defends school choice, works to advance the charter sector, and challenges the inefficiencies of the education establishment. It offers weekly e‑news updates, communications training, and networking meetings to support charter schools in particular. Among its other publications, the center rates state charter laws, compiles an annual directory of charter schools across the nation, formulates a “parent power index” showing how much influence families have on education policy in their state, and scores media stories on K‑12 education for accuracy and fairness.
  • 50CAN (the 50‑State Campaign for Achievement Now) grew out of an organization in Connecticut that used a paired strategy of 501(c)(3) research plus 501(c)(4) lobbying and voter engagement. The Connecticut successes included lifting that state’s cap on charter school numbers, increasing charter-school operating grants, securing $50 million in funding for charter school facilities, implementing teacher evaluations based on student achievement, and opening the Nutmeg State’s first alternative pathway for principal certification. These successes led to offices in additional states. By 2015, 25 state CANs are slated to be up and running.
  • CEE‑Trust, funded by donors including the Gates Foundation, is a national network of more than 30 city organizations (nonprofits, philanthropists, mayors’ offices, etc.) that cooperate on policy changes to improve U.S. education. The group does some advocacy, for instance regularly calling for fairer funding of charter schools, but it also does much more—sponsoring working groups on topics like reforming school governance, incubating charters, encouraging blended learning, producing publications.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaking on behalf of businesses nationwide, sometimes advocates for charter schools as a means to ensure future economic growth. “Public charter schools are without a doubt one of the nation’s most promising efforts to produce more great public schools,” says Arthur Rothkopf of the chamber. “We must do everything we can to increase the supply.”
  • The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) is a national organization with local affiliates in seven cities and states. BAEO and its local offices exist to advocate for the expansion of educational choices, and to empower black families by providing them with information about their schooling options. Using media and old‑fashioned organizing, BAEO actively builds community support for policies friendly to charters and other school alternatives.
  • Democrats for Education Reform includes (c)(3), (c)(4), and PAC arms that support high academic standards, innovation, and accountability in education—including high‑quality charter schools. “People ask us all the time why we can’t call ourselves ‘Everyone for Education Reform,’” chuckles DFER’s Joseph Williams. “Our answer is that, historically, education reform has faced problems within the Democratic Party. We need to get the Democrats caught up. Then we can have a bipartisan working environment.” Contributions to DFER come from individuals like William Ackman, Boykin Curry, Charles Ledley, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson on the political side, and its (c)(3) operations are supported by foundations like Broad. DFER has promoted a bill to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in New York state, and hosted rallies and events on behalf of charter schools across the nation.
  • EdVoice is a lobbying group in California with a budget of about $1.5 million a year that aims to balance the influence of teacher unions in certain legislative fights. California businessmen who donate to charter schools provided the initial funding. “They got together and said, ‘Hey, it’s time to put some political muscle behind our education‑reform ideals,’” explains Scott Hamilton, former CEO of the KIPP Foundation.
  • Parent Revolution, directed by Ben Austin, is another California group focused even more tightly on the Los Angeles region. It brings together parents to press for change in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It runs an informative website with information about current campaigns, an action handbook, and an online sign‑up to receive e‑mails about upcoming events. The group has promoted the so‑called “parent trigger” that allows families to force change at persistently failing public schools.
  • New Schools for New Orleans is a very effective advocate in the city that leads the nation in experimentation with charter schools. NSNO sponsors public and parent information initiatives—including print and online versions of the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools—which help ensure that parents and community members understand the charter model and are aware of their educational options. NSNO has also sponsored radio advertisements to spread the word about charter schools, and helped create a local office dedicated to providing parents with tools and information that allow them to advocate for themselves when choosing a school.

Is eroding monopolies the ultimate policy reform?

“Fifteen years ago, everybody was really excited about how the conventional public schools in Seattle were improving themselves. Now you never hear about Seattle.” That’s the voice of Reed Hastings, former president of the California State Board of Education, founder of Netflix, and a major donor to school reform. “What’s happening is that instead of improving, school districts are just oscillating. With a thousand large school districts in the nation, there are always some that are improving, and we say ‘See? It can work.’ But if you look over the long term, nothing has really changed conventional school districts.”

Hastings argues that until all schools in America are spun off into autonomous governance, “we’re doomed. We get excited about the work that Joel Klein did in New York, the work that Kaya Henderson has done in D.C. Those are really good for the decade we’re in, but over the years you just don’t see continuity. The problem is the school board or the mayor changes, and so you don’t get a chance to sustain excellence. What district got fixed 30 years ago and stayed fixed?”

Hastings, who has been a major progenitor of charter schools and also served on the board of the California Charter Schools Association, calls charter schools “the best opportunity we have” not just for their ability to deliver better education to the kids attending them but because they provide “competition for school districts” that will force mainline schools to innovate, hire and fire better, use technology more wisely, and otherwise elevate their performance. “It’s what you pioneer with charter schools that will drive improvements generally.” That’s why he devotes “half” of his education philanthropy today to “political reform” that will create more room for entrepreneurial schools like charters.

Other major donors have had a similar insight. Noting the dramatic expansion of the charter sector in the District of Columbia over the last decade, philanthropist Katherine Bradley observes that “this growth has created huge pressure on our conventional D.C. public schools to get better. It has been remarkable watching the change in our district schools in concert with the proliferation of our charters.”

The deepest payoff from advocacy on behalf of charter schools could thus actually be to transform conventional schools.

The deepest payoff from advocacy on behalf of charter schools could thus actually be to transform conventional schools. Donors who use policy activism to defend charters may ultimately plant the innovations they are pioneering—like greater flexibility and accountability for teachers, the more powerful principal role, a longer school day, and so forth—in many other places as well. This is a wonderful bonus, because no matter how much money and energy philanthropy devotes to spreading charter schools, a majority of children will never get a shot at a seat in a charter in the near term.

The logical next step for activist donors, thinkers like Neerav Kingsland and Andy Smarick suggest, should be to encourage public questioning of the old notion of the school district itself. “Can we reinvent what public education looks like? That seems to be the next phase,” argues Kingsland. “Funders should actively talk about the idea that it could work for whole districts to be made up solely of charter schools” (as New Orleans has already nearly achieved, and as smaller districts in Michigan and Georgia are also doing).

“The traditional public school system in large urban areas cannot be fixed,” says Smarick, author of The Urban School System of the Future. “For great results, it must be replaced—by a new ‘system of schools’ governed by the practices of chartering. Today’s ecosystem of charters has shown that the government need not be the exclusive operator of public schools. A wide array of organizations can deliver a public education in a schools marketplace that decentralizes power, delivers variety, continually innovates and shuts down failures, and turns citizens into customers able to exercise choice. Urban governments must shift into the business of managing portfolios of schools operated by others. And we should stop seeing chartering as a ‘sector’—it should become the system through which all urban public education is governed in the future.”

By producing new thinking like this, charter school success itself has become a driver of new policy. At a minimum, it pushes policymakers toward neutrality on the question of whether families should educate their children at conventional schools, charters, or some other school of choice. If the logic of charter school success eventually played out fully, the result could be deep structural change of America’s monolithic public-school systems that have so long resisted any significant remake. At that point it would be no exaggeration to refer to the charter school movement as a “revolution.”

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