Several big names in education reform are teaming up to start a new organization designed to change how schools are managed in cities across the U.S. — and they say they’ve already raised $200 million.
The City Fund, as the group is being called, will push cities to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy. It represents a big increase in visibility and influence for advocates of the “portfolio model” of running schools, a strategy that’s been adopted by cities like New Orleans, Denver, and Indianapolis.
The group was announced Tuesday morning on the blog of Neerav Kingsland, who leads education giving at The Laura and John Arnold Foundation. According to a separate presentation created by the group and viewed by Chalkbeat, the Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund have already given the group over $200 million. It’s unclear if the organization has raised additional funds.
Although the group is likely to start in a small number of cities, that presentation also made its ambitions clear: it aspires to eventually be in “every city in America.”
Others involved include Chris Barbic of the Arnold Foundation; Kevin Huffman, the former Tennessee education chief; David Harris, who previously led the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based group; and Ethan Gray, the president of the nonprofit Education Cities.
“We believe that school systems can succeed when schools operate with autonomy while being held accountable for strong student results,” the group said in a job posting, which has since been taken down.
The group will be advocating for a brand of school reform that has gained traction in a number of cities, but remains controversial.
The basic idea is that families should be able to choose among different schools, and that those schools should be free to operate as they see fit. In addition, schools should be held accountable for their performance — largely based on test scores — with good ones growing and bad ones closing, while an oversight body coordinates essential functions like enrollment across schools.
Cities that have adopted much or all of this portfolio approach include Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, as well as Camden and Newark, New Jersey. In each of those cities, charter schools have expanded rapidly. Some of those cities also have a hybrid, where district schools are granted charter-like autonomy or charter operators take over district schools.
“Cities across the country are constantly innovating, and when a few cities do something that seems to be working, philanthropy can help shine a light on these local successes,” the group’s blog post says.
The City Fund’s founders have experience with those cities. Kingsland ran New Schools for New Orleans, a group that coordinated education advocacy and philanthropy in that city after Hurricane Katrina. As Tennessee commissioner, Huffman helped create the state’s Achievement School District, which Barbic ran and which turned district schools over to charters. Harris led the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis group that influenced the education strategy of the city’s central district. Gray’s Education Cities has spent the last several years convening local nonprofits pushing these ideas in two dozen cities.
But Education Cities’ budget was around $3 million in 2016. The City Fund’s aspirations — and budget — appear to be much bigger.
If the $200 million figure is designed to last for several years, the City Fund would remain significantly smaller than the biggest players in education philanthropy, though large enough to make an impact. The Walton Foundation spent about $191 million on U.S. education in just 2016, for example, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent about $367 million.
The group has indicated that it plans to influence local organizations by providing funding, obtaining seats on their boards of directors, offering strategic advice, and convening groups from different cities, according to people familiar with their plans.
These local “quarterback” organizations, as they’re sometimes called, are designed to be the nonprofit hub of a city’s portfolio strategy — doling out grants to grow schools seen as successful, seeding groups that influence school board elections, creating and advocating for new policies like unified enrollment systems.
Its approach is sure to face fierce pushback — and already has in many cities.
Skeptics of charter schools will surely oppose this effort to expand charters and other schools not governed by a school board; they’ll also likely see it as an attempt to weaken teachers unions. Indeed, some advocates for the model say that a key goal is to limit the power of teachers groups by growing schools where teachers aren’t unionized.
Across the country, charter school expansion has drawn pushback as districts lose students and money, in some cases pushing schools to close. Nationally, polls indicate that support for charters has fallen, particularly among Democrats.
On the other side, free-market advocates see the portfolio model as actually limiting school choice, putting too much power in the hands of the “portfolio manager” and shutting down schools based on their test scores, rather than parent demand. In 2015, before she was Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos successfully led the opposition to an effort to create what amounted to a portfolio model in Detroit on those grounds.
Another major risk for the group is operating from a national perch with national funding.
This has tripped up advocates of the portfolio model before. In 2013, for instance, Gray of Education Cities released a plan to have Kansas City adopt the portfolio model if it were taken over by the state. The idea set off a firestorm and was never implemented, not least of all because it was being pushed by a national group with few ties to the city.
Advocates for the approach argue that it will help students in cities that have long struggled with academic performance, though the evidence of its effectiveness is limited and mixed.
Their argument has gotten both good news and bad news in recent weeks. While a new study showed substantial increases in high school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion rates in the wake of school reforms in New Orleans, another found that the Tennessee turnaround district that Barbic led produced no gains in test scores even after five years.
“We’ll also work with university researchers to study these local efforts,” the blog post said. “If cities show progress, we hope other cities will follow. If they don’t, we hope other promising innovations are able to scale, so that all students can have access to amazing public schools.”
Education Cities itself is shifting focus, according to a message on its website Tuesday morning, as Gray and some staff members move to The City Fund. Education Cities will be supporting two new organizations, one aimed at advising school board members and the other aimed at helping education groups partner with communities.