These aren’t necessarily the best of times for charter schools. And while not the worst of times either, charters face a tougher environment marked by growing political headwinds and declining interest among some funders. This fluidity prompted us to take a long look at the state of charter school giving this March.
“For now, support for charters seems to be holding. However, the schools have had trouble reaching scale, and have yet to catalyze the system-wide transformation many backers hoped for,” IP reported. “Some of the field’s champions take that as a sign of the work left to do. Those foundations are doubling down on their support for the schools.
“Other funders, including former stalwart backers of charters, see the failure of this model to scale and spread as a reason to pause and consider their future investments. Those foundations tend to see charter schools as an important part of the education landscape, but not as a means to transform the system,” the IP analysis continued.
Some of the space’s biggest players, like the Walton Foundation, while not backing away from charter investments, have started to spread out their education giving. Other once-reliable charter backers, like the Broad Foundation, have exited the space altogether. Meanwhile, political pushback to charters has lately grown, especially within a Democratic Party that has been moving to left. (At least one presidential candidate has called for a ban on for-profit charters.)
In this climate, it’s therefore noteworthy that a large network of charter schools is setting records in fundraising and using those funds to scale and expand rapidly.
A Magnet for Money
IDEA Public Schools is a network of more than 100 charter schools, mostly across Texas and Louisiana and expanding soon into Florida. Recently, IDEA announced a round of funding stretching to nearly $55 million that it said will allow it to start 14 new schools in the Odessa and Midland, Texas, region within the next five years. The planned expansion will serve an estimated 10,000 students.
The funding is largely coming from Midland-area sources, including $21 million from the Scharbauer Foundation, $5.5 million from the Abell-Hanger Foundation and $2 million from the Henry Foundation. The Permian Strategic Partnership, a group of 20 regional energy companies, is reported to be giving $16.5 million.
And while the size of the investment is significant, so, too, is the pace. “This is our first region where the entire sum of start-up money has been raised before we open the region. It just speaks a lot to the commitment of the community in this endeavor,” Bethany Solis, IDEA’s executive director for new territory told a local paper.
So how is it that in this climate of charter uncertainty, a southern charter network founded by a pair of Teach for America graduates is succeeding and expanding? Sam Goessling, IDEA’s chief advancement officer, said IDEA is doing well with donors because it’s doing well for students.
“Our record of results is something that funders are interested in learning about and digging into,” Goessling said. “The big number that stands out is that half of our students are graduating from college, fully 100 percent are accepted to college, and amazingly, 99.7 percent of our students matriculate to college, they show up to start,” he said.
These statistics on post-secondary success are significant at a moment when charter networks are facing more questions about how well their grads do in college and beyond.
But it’s not just in post-graduation statistics where IDEA is showing progress, according to Goessling. “Our state test scores are ticking up—one point across all grade levels and across all subjects at the same time,” he said.
Here, it’s important to point out that IDEA schools aren’t exclusive academic enclaves. They have open enrollment, which is to say, they’re less likely to be skimming off better students from traditional districts and looking good when those students achieve. “We target disadvantaged communities and take everyone,” Goessling said. “And all our students take all the required tests.”
Like other charter school networks, IDEA has faced its share of critics who question its claims. For example, writing in 2016, Ross Moore, president of the El Paso Federation of Teachers and Support Personnel, charged that IDEA did engage in creaming of better students and overstated how many of its students go to college. “IDEA has very slick marketers that don’t always stick to the truth,” Moore wrote, warning that the network’s expansion in El Paso would be bad for “children, real public schools and the future.” In an extended blog post last year, charter critic Thomas Ultican offered a more comprehensive look at IDEA’s alleged failings, arguing that “Without the staggeringly large monetary gifts from billionaires, the IDEA system of schools would not exist.”
Still, donors continue to line up behind IDEA, convinced that it really is achieving strong results. According to Goessling, the charter network is thriving in part because of its good word-of-mouth reputation in the funding community. “Donors talk to one another, and we know that,” he said. “So it’s been very helpful that we’ve kept our word about our expansion plans.
“When we went to San Antonio, we said, ‘we’re going to open 20 schools in five years, and we’re going to raise funds to do it,’ and we did exactly that. We’re not asking for funding for things that never materialize,” he said.
That’s important, not just for trust among donors, but for keeping pace with what he characterizes as “not a normal charter school growth path.” Goessling says IDEA has a goal to serve 100,000 students across 200 schools by 2022. It opened 18 schools last year, and will open 18 more this year.
A Sustainable Model
A third reason IDEA is drawing support from donors is that their programs are sustainable, Goessling said. “One of the core components of our model is that our schools are totally sustainable within three to four years,” he said. In other words, IDEA isn’t asking donors for money forever. “Once a school is up and running,” Goessling said, “we exist on state funding alone, and the school goes on from there.” The only ongoing fundraising the schools do, he said, was for college scholarships for their students.
Goessling acknowledges the headwinds facing charter school networks today. “It’s a challenging environment at this point in time,” Goessling said. “But the best approach is always to continue to deliver for students, and I would hope the public knows more about charters like IDEA public schools and that the work we do is important.”
Over 25 years, billions have been invested in charter schools, with mixed results. But even as evidence has accumulated about the lackluster performance of the charter sector overall, the best-performing charter school networks like KIPP and Green Dot have continued to impress donors with their track records. Judging by its recent fundraising success, IDEA now has a similar reputation in the funding community.