Another Local Charter Funder, the Kauffman Foundation, Steps Things Up

For the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, charter schools represent a way to combine two of its primary funding interests: education and entrepreneurship. The funder sees charter school operators as educational entrepreneurs injecting new ideas and greater choices into K-12 education.

The foundation is itself an education entrepreneur, starting its Ewing Marion Kauffman School in 2011. Never let it be said, however, that this funder fears competition. Kauffman recently announced $2.5 million in education-related grants, including $1 million to help start a new chain of charter schools in its home base of Kansas City.

This is one more example of a major funder backing charters in a significant way in its home city. We see a lot of charter funders staying local and focusing on remaking the educational system in a single city or region. These local efforts often pull in support from national charter funders, and that's the case here. 

Kauffman awarded the $1 million grant to Kansas City Midtown Community School Initiative, a parent-led group that has garnered some serious seed money. The group has joined the $1 million from Kauffman with $650,000 from the Hall Family Foundation and another $1 million from the Walton Family Foundation. The parent group has teamed with the California-based Citizens of the World to plan for what will eventually be a network of four charter school campuses in midtown Kansas City. The group plans to open two elementary schools in 2016, followed by gradual expansion into a middle school, with a high school planned to open by 2027, according to a report in the Kansas City Star newspaper.

In addition to the grant to start these new charter schools, Kauffman awarded $1.5 million in scholarship funds to be divided among 10 different Kansas City-based organizations, including the Black Community Scholarship Fund and the Kansas City Public Schools Early College Academy. The scholarship funds signal an intention by the funder to continue supporting the postsecondary dreams of low-income students as it winds down its Kauffman Scholars Program, which supports students from middle school through college completion. Kauffman Scholars admitted its last cohort of seventh grade recipients in 2011.

The $2.5 million in grants should send a strong signal of Kauffman's commitment to its home city. As reported here last year, former CEO Carl Schramm's moves to expand Kauffman's reputation beyond Kansas City caused some to wonder if the funder had turned its back on its home base. In 2013, Schramm was ousted and replaced by business leader Tom McDonnell, who initiated efforts to repair the funder's reputation at home. McDonnell's stint at the Kauffman helm ended in 2014, but the good news for Kansas City is that the renewed focus on local needs appears to be continuing under acting President and CEO Wendy Guillies. Plus, the funder's willingness to spread funds beyond its own education programs is good news for nonprofits who are committed to expanding educational opportunity for deserving urban students.