If You Thought Charter School Funders Might Be Losing Steam, Think Again

Over the past 15 years, funders have poured a fortune into backing charter schools. And while there is fierce debate over the effectiveness of such schools, one point seems less controversial: The rise of charters, with the attendant choice and market competition, hasn't spurred a revolution in public schools writ large, as many funders had hoped. The share of school kids in public charters has risen nearly five-fold since 2000yet is still below 5 percent.

That's not exactly a solution on the fast track to scale, and as the scholar Jay Greene has pointed out, even the biggest ed funders like Walton and Gates wield puny resources compared to the size of the K-12 systema mammoth $600 billion-a-year enterprise. Meanwhile, some notable ed reform disappointments, such as those in Newark and Milwaukee, have underscored the obstacles that charter proponents can face in trying to remake entire urban school systems. 


All of which is why we've been on the lookout for signs that ed philanthropists may be losing steam when it comes to pushing charters, choice, and competion. We've speculated that some recent initiatives to improve how students learn may signal a shift to other priorities among funders. 

Related: Can a New Focus on Learning by Funders Move K-12 Past the Ed Wars?

Now, though, news out of Los Angeles makes it clear that the charter movement still has plenty of energy and ambition. 

Earlier this summer, we reported on a series of secret meetings between a number of high-profile education foundations, led by the Broad Foundation, and local Los Angeles charter officials, purportedly to discuss plans to expand the charter school movement in L.A. According the Los Angeles Times, speculation has now given way to fact, and the details emerging are raising the curtain on what appears to be one of the biggest efforts to overhaul K-12 education the country has ever seen. 

Related: A Heavyweight Ed Funder Looks to Expand Charters In His Home City—And Gets a Fight

When we first reported on this effort back in August, information was limited, and those involved declined to provide any insight beyond “the effort is in an early, exploratory phase.” But a new report obtained by the Times outlines a $490 million campaign to move half the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District into charter schools by 2023. Talk about scale!

According to the report, the initiative, a hybrid fundraising and public education campaign, hopes to engage some of the usual suspects in ed philanthropy including Gates, Bloomberg, Annenberg and Hewlett, while adding a few fresh faces to the K-12 funding game, specifically David Geffen and Elon Musk. 

As we noted earlier, Los Angeles is already something of an epicenter for the charter school movement, with over 200 charter schools serving over 100,000 students. This new plan, currently titled The Great Public Schools Now Initiative, seeks to more than double that number, adding 260 new charter schools over a period of just 8 years.

But Los Angeles appears to be just the beginning. Noting the generally charter-receptive climate in Los Angeles, the report authors view L.A. as ground zero for a mass expansion of the charter movement nationwide.

Thanks to the strength of its charter leaders and teachers, as well as its widespread civic and philanthropic support, Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to create the largest, highest-performing charter sector in the nation. Such an exemplar would serve as a model for all large cities to follow.

This is a mightily ambitious goal, dwarfed only by the full scope of what it’s going to take to make it happen—namely building new campuses, recruiting a whole lot of talent, and getting key decision makers on board for what will be a complete, and undoubtedly controversial, transformation of K-12 education. According the Los Angeles Times,

[The Broad Foundation] has already made a substantial commitment to the Great Public Schools Now effort, and the Walton Family Foundation has committed to making Los Angeles a 'target city'" for its philanthropic efforts. Charter school leaders told the Times that the W.M. Keck Foundation also is involved, while other foundations and individuals listed in the memo as potential partners to be tapped for funding include the ArnoldGates, and Hewlett foundations; Bloomberg Philanthropies; POM Wonderful and FIJI Water brand owners Stewart and Lynda Resnick; Conrad N. Hilton Foundation board member William B. Hilton, Jr.; and former financier Michael Milken.

That's truly an A-list of funders, and the prospect of these players throwing their influence and resources behind such an effort is cause for celebration among many ed reformers and charter advocates. But for those on the other side of this issue, this is probably one of the more terrifying developments to hit the public school system in recent memory. Echoing the unsurprising, widespread unease among L.A. Unified union members, School Board President Steve Zimmer told the Times, "this plan is not one for transforming our public schools, but an outline for a hostile takeover."

Living in Los Angeles means getting used to the idea that your world is going to be shaken up every now and again. Brace yourselves, Angelenos, a big one is coming.