One Funder Wants to Expand Charters’ Market Share in Cleveland

The George Gund Foundation spreads its money around in education. This year, the foundation has invested in a review of Ohio’s schools of education, early college high school programs (its largest investment of nearly half a million dollars), and college access and retention programs.

Its second largest investment of the year has gone to Breakthrough Charter Schools, the highest-rated network of free, nonprofit, public charter schools in Cleveland, Ohio, to support its ambitious growth plan. This is the foundation's fourth consecutive year investing in Breakthrough for a total of over $1.3 million donated to one of the largest charter players in the foundation’s hometown of Cleveland. The donations were made through the Friends of Breakthrough Schools, the organization’s fiscal agent.

Breakthrough claims to be working closely with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to “increase the number high-quality schools for Cleveland’s children.” The network's New Schools Initiative endeavors to open eleven new schools, bringing the total to twenty schools serving over 7000 students.

That projected enrollment figure edges the charter network toward serving nearly one-fifth of Cleveland’s entire school-age population. Currently, just under 40 percent of Cleveland students attend charter schools citywide. This mirrors a national trend in which we’re seeing significant growth in high-poverty charter schools nationally, with urban centers like Cleveland becoming increasingly saturated with charter providers absorbing significant “market share” from urban public schools districts.

So what do the investments of the George Gund Foundation convey about its theory of change for Cleveland? For one thing, the foundation specifically calls out “autonomy and accountability” in its funding priorities around education. The foundation seems keenly focused on “the new,” through its funding of the Bard Early College High School program (a successful model from New York City) now arriving in Cleveland this fall along with its robust funding for the proliferation of new charter schools.

As the local school district struggles with a significant deficit (in large part due to declining enrollment), we’re seeing yet another major funder pile on for new initiatives that in some ways augment, and in many ways, replace, what traditional districts are doing. Where this aggressive growth model for charter schools takes us anyone’s question to answer, but one thing is clear: The money (and funders like Gund) are behind this movement with vigor.