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.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: