money for reform

Where do the nation’s big charter boosters send their cash? More and more to charter networks

PHOTO: Department for International Development/Russell Watkins

Wealthy charter school backers have directed most of their money to a select number of states, particularly ones where charter schools are better at raising test scores, according to a new study.

The research also finds that foundations are sending a larger share to charter school networks and a smaller share to stand-alone charters — echoing complaints from independent charter school leaders that they’ve gotten short shrift from funders.

The concentration of funding, researchers Joseph Ferrare and Renee Setari write, gives “foundations considerable leverage.” It has also “enabled some charter management organizations (e.g., KIPP) and subsystems (e.g., New Orleans) to expand the supply of charter schools at a dramatic rate.”

The researchers combed through multiple years of spending from 15 education philanthropies that have supported charter schools, including major donors like the Gates and Walton foundations and local ones like the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City and the Joyce Foundation in Chicago. (Chalkbeat is funded in part by the Gates, Joyce, and Walton foundations.)

The paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, looks at funding in 2009, 2012, and 2014.

Who gets the money? CMOs, more and more

The philanthropies fund a variety of efforts to bolster charters, from advocacy organizations to individual schools. How that money is distributed has changed over time.

More recently, charter management organizations have gotten a much larger share, while stand-alone charters have gotten a lot less.

Charter school funds — sometimes described as “venture philanthropies” — that distribute money to schools or networks saw their funding decline between 2012 and 2014. Two well-funded outliers are the Charter School Growth Fund, which the study notes received $45.6 million across the three years — more grant funding than any other organization — and the NewSchools Venture Fund.

For-profit charter networks, or EMOs, received virtually no philanthropic support.

Where does the money go? A few states

The funders studied did not distribute money evenly across states — some got a lot, while others got nothing.

Unsurprisingly, populous states like New York and California, where many major funders are physically located, got the most raw support. Ten states where charter laws were on the books, though usually with small numbers of charter schools, got zero resources from the 15 philanthropies.

“The geographic distribution of the funds awarded was highly concentrated, with 80 percent of the total funding across all three years being awarded to organizations in only 10 of the 39 states and District of Columbia,” the study says.

On a per-student basis, some states continued to come out far ahead. Charter groups and charter schools in Rhode Island and Massachusetts took in more than $500 per charter student, while Louisiana and New York also drew large support.

PHOTO: Converging on Choice: The Interstate Flow of Foundation Dollars to Charter School Organizations"

What kinds of places get money?

Ferrare and Setari also find that states where research finds charter schools are more effective — as measured by test score improvement relative to district schools — seem to draw more donors.

The study also finds that philanthropies tended to converge in states that won funding through Race to the Top, the Obama-era initiative that encouraged states to become more hospitable to charter schools. “Intentional or not, the federal government and foundations worked in concert to advance charter school reform,” the study says.

The fact that philanthropies seem to focus on states where charter sectors are larger or more effective, or both, could be seen as philanthropists trying to get the most bang for their buck. But the study points out that that this leaves other places behind.

It’s also possible that the size and effectiveness of certain charter sectors is partially because of donor support, not the other way around.

“We can say that the money is following the evidence,” said Ferrare. “On the other hand, there are some concerns because it does suggest that those [states] who aren’t doing well are in some ways destined to continue that way.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.