Deep Pockets for a Charter School Powerhouse: A Look at the Money Behind KIPP

The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. As one of the largest and best-known charter school chains in the country, KIPP operates more than 150 schools in 20 states, plus the District of Columbia. Its enrollment of more than 50,000 students makes KIPP as large as many urban school systems. KIPP has been praised by former President George W. Bush and was featured in the 2010 pro-education reform documentary Waiting for Superman.

Not bad for an organization that started with two campuses, in Houston and New York City.

Along the way, the nonprofit charter chain and its KIPP Foundation have assembled an impressive lineup of education funders, who actively support the schools. They also keep a close eye on their investments, with representatives of some funders holding seats on the KIPP Foundation’s board of directors. The foundation began in 2000 when KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin partnered with Doris and Donald Fisher. A $15 million gift from the Fishers helped KIPP acquire facilities and recruit and train teachers.

The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund remains an essential partner and holds the top slot among KIPP supporters, awarding more than $60 million over the years. Doris Fisher sits on the KIPP Foundation board of directors. The Fisher Fund keeps a low profile, but gives big to charter schools, with KIPP being a particular favorite. An estimated half of the Fisher Fund’s grants have gone to KIPP schools.

In contrast to the quiet, low-profile Fisher Fund, the Walton Family Foundation is quite vocal in its support of charter schools. So it will come as no surprise to our readers that Walton is the second top funder of KIPP at the $60 million level. Walton trustee Carrie Walton Penner (see our profile of her here) sits on the KIPP board of directors, and the foundation clearly likes the direction in which the charter chain is headed. In 2011, Walton awarded $25 million to help KIPP expand and increase its enrollment, with the goal of reaching an enrollment of 59,000 by 2015. KIPP’s website reports that it has reached that goal and, as of the 2014-15 school year, serves 59,000 students in 162 schools across the country.

KIPP is second only to Teach For America as a recipient of Walton grants, and the two organizations have longstanding ties. KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and David Levin are TFA alumni. TFA founder Wendy Kopp is the wife of KIPP Foundation’s chairman, Richard Barth. Many teachers in KIPP schools are TFA recruits.

KIPP schools have demonstrated exceptional academic results, often outperforming traditional public schools in the same neighborhoods. Walton has praised KIPP for creating excellent schools in low-income communities and reported that traditional public schools are trying to replicate the charter chain’s success.

While that may be true, critics question whether the KIPP model is sustainable in any kind of realistic way. Education historian Diane Ravitch, a former school choice advocate turned critic, noted that while KIPP schools demonstrate high results, they also have high rates of student attrition and teacher turnover, which she attributes to the schools’ high demands for students, parents, and teachers.

There is no doubt that KIPP schools are demanding. Students have longer school days (about 9.5 hours), plus some Saturday and summer classes. Teachers work longer hours, are required to provide their cell phone numbers to students and parents, and are on call around the clock for help with homework. With few exceptions, KIPP schools are non-union. Parents, meanwhile, are expected to be active in their children’s education, check homework, and be responsible for their children’s behavior.

Critics also question whether KIPP enrolls all types of students, as traditional public schools must. Because most successful charter schools lack the space to admit all comers, KIPP admits students by lottery, which by definition tends to attract the most motivated families. These admissions lotteries often result in charters “creaming away” the top students in poor neighborhoods. Research by Mathematica Policy Research found that KIPP tends to enroll fewer “high needs” students, such as English Language Learners and those in special education programs.

Whatever you may think of the KIPP approach, it has won a lot of admirers in the world of education philanthropy. Its network of funders goes well beyond Fisher and Walton. The next level of funding on the KIPP honor roll consists of those funders that have supported the charter organization in the $10 million to $25 million range. Funders at this level include the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. In 2014, Broad chose KIPP as the winner of its annual $250,000 prize for top charter schools. Broad maintains a separate prize for public school districts.

Funders at the $5 million to $9.9 million level include the Citi, Rainwater, Jack Kent Cooke, and Gates Foundations. While it may be surprising not to see Gates among the top funders, it is important to remember that Gates’ education work focuses more on traditional K-12 public schools than funders such as Walton and Fisher. Much of Gates’ charter school funding is limited to the foundation’s home state of Washington. As of the end of 2014, KIPP had no schools in Washington state.

The $1 million to $4.9 million funding range consists of a larger pool of foundations and individuals. These funders include the Charles and Helen Schwab, Ewing Marion Kauffman, Calder, Wallace, Bezos, and Laura and John Arnold Foundations. Individual and corporate funders include venture capital and consulting giant Bain and Company and Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings, who also is a KIPP Foundation director.

Although charter schools such as KIPP receive state revenues to operate their campuses, they also rely heavily on fund-raising from corporate and philanthropic sources. Because most states do not provide start-up monies for charter schools, fundraising efforts can help charters acquire facilities, purchase classroom equipment, and hire teachers.

As the list above demonstrates, many of KIPP’s most prominent funders include education reform advocates who contend that the current system of public education is broken and that school choice programs, such as charter schools, represent the best hope of saving America’s students. Research on the overall impact of charter schools is mixed, but it is clear that they will remain a growing presence in the educational landscape. Chains such as KIPP are sure to continue growing and expanding, with the generous help of reform-minded education funders.