What Are These Two Hedge Fund Guys Doing in Jersey City?

The idea that effective school leadership on the part of principals is a key element in school reform and better student achievement appears to be catching on. Education researchers have been saying it for years, and a growing number of funders are not only listening, but stepping up to help fund solutions.

The shift in many states to the more rigorous Common Core State Standards has emerged as yet one more factor driving the push for stronger school leadership. Regardless of the reason, more funders are lining up to throw money at programs to train new principals and provide coaching and support for existing ones.

I wrote recently about a $30 million Wallace Foundation gift that is focused on revamping school district central offices to better support principals and enable them to focus more on instructional leadership and less on budgets, buildings, and bureaucratic red tape. I also wrote the other day about how the Walton Family Foundation is funding school leadership projects in its home state of Arkansas.

Now David Tepper and Alan Fournier, two wealthy hedge fund guys from New Jersey with a background in education philanthropy and political activism, have joined in the push to bolster school leaders, putting up $3 million for a principal training program in the Jersey City Public Schools.

(See our full profiles of Tepper and Fournier.)

The Jersey City effort will begin by paying the salaries of five administrators to take courses and shadow veteran principals on the job. It also will fund coursework for 15 teachers who aspire to become principals.

"Good leadership and good teachers, that's where it all begins," Tepper told the Wall Street Journal. However correct the two hedge funders may be in focusing on school leadership, some may question whether their $3 million could be more effectively used. The training and professional development for the new Jersey City Leadership Institute will be coordinated by the SUPES Academy, a group whose training has been criticized as ineffective. 

Catalyst Chicago, which reports on education issues in Chicago Public Schools, found some principals dissatisfied with SUPES training, calling it too elementary and a waste of time. Some principals said SUPES workshop leaders were not knowledgeable about urban school leadership and that attendance at SUPES training sessions in Chicago declined over time.

Catalyst also reported that SUPES Academy's contract with CPS was a $20 million, no-bid contract that has become so controversial that principals have now been allowed to opt out of the training.

Tepper and Fournier are no strangers to education funding in the Garden State. Fournier is on the board of trustees for TEAM Schools, a network of Newark charter schools. Both he and Tepper support merit pay for teachers, as well as reform of the teacher tenure system—positions that have not endeared them to teachers' unions in New Jersey. 

In 2011, Tepper and Fournier set up Better Education for Kids Inc., a statewide education group that advocates for reforms consistent with the education agenda of Gov. Chris Christie. The group was a key advocate for the 2012 New Jersey TEACHNJ law, which made it more difficult for teachers to get tenure and tied teacher ratings in part to student test scores, which teacher organizations have criticized as an unfair and unreliable method for evaluating teachers.

With this new gift to Jersey City, Tepper and Fournier have turned their attention to the issue of school leadership, which ranks just behind effective teachers as drivers of student achievement. Whether this gift leads to better student results in Jersey City, where more than a third of campuses have been the subject of state intervention because of low test scores, remains an open question.

But it shows the growing popularity of leadership efforts among funders and underscores the willingness of these two hedge fund guys to put serious money into their ed philanthropy.