Education Chat

How Venture Philanthropy Is Working to Change Education

Janet Knupp and Judith Feldman discuss how venture philanthropists are teaming up with the Chicago public schools to help improve the quality of teachers and principals.

How Venture Philanthropy Is Working to Change Education

  • Janet Knupp, founding president of the Chicago Public Education Fund, is a former educator and venture philanthropist with nearly 20 years of experience in startup and turnaround nonprofit-management situations. Before joining the Fund, Ms. Knupp worked as the executive director of Chicago Communities in Schools, where she redirected the organization from imminent bankruptcy to recognition as the most cost-effective urban office in a national network of 141 affiliates.
  • Judith Feldman is the Director of Development for The Renaissance Schools Fund, the venture philanthropy partner to the Renaissance 2010 initiative in Chicago. Before RSF, Judith was a Director of Development at Children’s Memorial Foundation. She taught high school English in Los Angeles while a Teach for America corps member and received a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York.

Dakarai I. Aarons (Moderator):
Good afternoon, and welcome to Education Week’s Live Chat. Joining us live are Chicago Public Education Fund founding president Janet Knupp and Renaissance Schools Fund director of development Judith Feldman. . In this Live Chat, they will discuss and answer your questions about the work their organizations have done in bringing venture philanthropy to Chicago. Some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential residents have given both their time and their money to help improve schools in the nation’s third-largest district. The Chicago Public Education Fund works hand-in-glove with the district to recruit and train principals and teachers. The Renaissance Schools Fund works in tandem with Chicago Public Schools on the startup of new schools in neighborhoods that have traditionally been served by crumbling, low-performing schools.

I’m Dakarai I. Aarons, a staff writer at Education Week, and I’ll be moderating this discussion with our two guests, each of whom has a unique background and perspective on Chicago’s use of venture philanthropy to support education, which is the subject of a story in a recent issue of Education Week. We’re already getting a tremendous number of questions for this chat, so let’s get right to them.

Question from Michael Fiorillo, NYC public school parent and teacher:

I have two related questions:

1. How do you respond to charges that your activities are primarily about privatizing public education?

2. Why should people not question the corporate takeover of the schools, given the catastrophic results of excessive corporate control of the rest of the economy? Why should your regime not end up just as badly? Judith Feldman, The Renaissance Schools Fund:

We should absolutely question everything about education reform (just as it is urgent we do so in all sectors such as banking/securities/hedge funds, real estate, health care, regulatory, etc.) but let’s be clear – The Renaissance Schools Fund and the Renaissance 2010 initiative do not advocate the privatization or the corporatization of the school system; we simply want to bring the best resources available to improve the status quo. To that end, we are working to identify great school models wherever they may be found -- be that in the traditional school system, in the private school sector, in the charter sector -- and launch them as public schools that benefit as many children and families as possible throughout Chicago. All of the new schools are public schools -- they are authorized by the district, open to any child and are formed as non-profit organizations. Most of the Ren10 schools do have the ability to contract with a for-profit management organization, although the majority have grown out of the vision and work of local Chicago educators and are operated by their founders. These include: the University of Chicago Charter Schools, Providence Englewood Charter School, North Lawndale College Prep, LEARN Charter Schools, Perspectives Charter Schools, Noble Network of Charter Schools, Polaris Charter School, Disney II, and many others. Chicago has tried numerous reform efforts in the past and yet we have just 50% of students graduating high school, only 3 of our 100 African American and Latino males graduating from college. Too many children and families still only have access to failing options and demand by parents for access to high performing schools is growing tremendously. Together -- educators, parents, business and civic leaders and private individual investors are working together to ensure parents have choice and are empowered to be the ultimate arbiters of their children’s education -- not only by launching new Ren10 schools with a zeal for excellence, transparency, ongoing evaluation and improvement, etc. -- but also by inspiring change across the district.

Question from Tony McGruther President AGPPA:

What evidence if any exists that schools engagement with philanthropy as receives or givers enhances childrens’ other learning?

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

Our mission is to accelerate student achievement for all Chicago public school students, especially our neediest, by building talented teams of principals and teachers. We have been explicit about publicly expressing measurable and, indeed, quantifiable goals toward achieving that mission. These explicit goals keep us and our portfolio partners accountable for accomplishing our mission.

We were one of the first to identify talent as the critical lever to impact student learning and we remain a nationally-recognized expert on human capital and school leadership. Research demonstrates that the quality of a child’s teacher ranks as the single largest factor impacting student performance. We invested early and deep in human capital initiatives that raised the bar for teacher and principal quality here in Chicago Public Schools. Today, more than 90% of Chicago schools benefit from these quality leaders. What’s more, we were deliberate about creating teams of great principals and teachers working together to drive student learning in schools.

Thus far, we have seen improvements in student learning in schools with these teams, with student standardized test scores at 10-13 points higher than schools without teams. Question from Brad Lupien, Founder & President of Champions Adventure, after school and sports programs:

I hope this question relates closely enough to the topic...Why do we see government contracts in the military, health, national security etc go to for profit corporations but education seems so against any forms of privatization? Chicago is merging the strengths of private enterprise and public education. Is this a trend that we could see nationally?

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

We begin our work through the lens of what is best for all Chicago public school students. We have made investments that are outside of the traditional system when we believe that those investments will help us achieve our strategic objectives and ultimately benefit children. The advantage of having private sector intellectual and financial investment at the table is that it drives us to look at best practices across sectors and not limit our thinking to particular ideologies.

As per your question about national trends, The Chicago Public Education Fund has been studied in top business schools, including Kellogg, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. Case studies have been written on our model. School districts across the country have sought our counsel about how to replicate our approach in their cities. This shows extraordinary interest in the potential of venture philanthropy to blend public and private sector expertise, driving solutions for complex problems.

Question from Harry J. Lipkin, Professor, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel:

Can the experience with Venture Philantropy in Israel be of interest here? The LITAF reading program supported by the New Israel Fund’s STIX program and by the Israeli Venture Network (IVN) enables the average teacher to teach a class of 40 pupils with widely varying backgrounds and abilities and get over 90% of the pupils to read with comprehension, fluency and enjoyment. The IVN and their partner LITAF have shown that basic literacy can be dramatically affected by changes in teaching methodology. After only a year its most dramatic impact is in Basic Hebrew Literacy where 93% of first graders in the city of Tiberias are reading compared with only 43% of last year’s first graders”.

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

Venture philanthropy is a unique way to drive innovation and private sector investment in public schools. Indeed, we believe The Chicago Public Education Fund is venture capital for public education. We use our capital to take risks, investing in new and sometimes untested ideas with great promise. Just as your program challenged the status quo and had a clear definition of success and quantifiable outcomes, so, too, do the portfolio programs in which we have invested.

As you probably know, our investments extend far beyond financial capital. We provide strategic management and operational assistance including taking board seats, hiring management teams, crafting strategic business plans, and identifying key outcomes that are tied to the infusion of dollars. Perhaps most importantly, we ensure on the front end that there is a viable exit strategy. Ultimately, we expect our programs to become part and parcel of how the district does business.

Question from Jennifer Wallace, Outreach Manager Financial Aid Programs, Bureau of Student Financial Assistance~State of Michigan:

Do you have data to support that the investment of TIME by members of the community to new initiatives is an important key to programmatic success?

(By the way, I agree with you! But we live in a data driven society.)~The TIP Lady

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

Our directors have each gone above and beyond, in their investment of personal dollars, time and what I refer to as ‘mind share’. They have shaped our strategic direction and held us accountable to results.

For example, Penny Pritzker led Chicago’s Principal Task Force which resulted in a dramatic change in how CPS recruits, trains and prepares principals. As a result, Chicago now boasts three cutting edge principal preparation programs and some of the toughest eligibility requirements and standards in the nation. Also, several of our directors, including Bruce Rauner, Helen Zell, and Thomas Darden testified before the Illinois State Board of Education resulting in the state, for the first time, compensating teachers for achieving objective standards of performance via National Board Certification. Chicago is now the fastest growing urban district in terms of number of National Board Certified Teachers.

These and many more examples show how the commitment of time is as important as dollars in achieving sustainable, scalable improvements in principal and teacher quality for the Chicago public schools.

Question from Thomas A. Camiolo, VP, Greece Agency Inc.:

How can small business make an impact when School Districts are resistant accepting aide unless it is a sizable amount!

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

The Chicago Public Education Fund raises a series of funds with four year terms so that, at the conclusion of each fund, we can ask ourselves whether we have accomplished our goals and whether we should raise another fund.

These funds are not large in size when compared to the annual CPS budget of nearly $5 billion. For example, our first fund was $10 million, and our second was $15 million. Despite this, and in the spirit of venture capital, we have been able to leverage significant additional capital - to the tune of more than $100 million. As a result, with relatively limited private sector investment, we have been able to dramatically improve the way CPS recruits and prepares teachers and principals. In fact, school districts across the nation are looking to Chicago as a leader in innovative human capital strategies.

Question from Seewan Eng, Research Associate, WestEd:

With all of the challenges facing public schools, how do you choose your priorities?

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

We choose our priorities based not only on the needs of the district, but also on the unique capabilities of The Fund and those areas that are most likely to create systemic, sustainable change. Ultimately, we have to consider the more than 400,000 children that we’re serving. We have been successful influencing the priorities of the system and working with the district as accountable partners in achieving shared goals.

Choosing our priorities requires a great deal of trust, transparency, and collaboration from all stakeholders involved. Although we are not part of the Chicago Public School system, we are closely aligned with CPS leadership, the Chicago Board of Education, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office and other strategic partners. Our goals are shared goals. Question from Mary Wright, Program Director, The Conference Board:

I am assuming most venture philanthropists are “business” people. I also believe that business has much to offer schools (and vice-versa but not getting into that here....) but the two sides are not good at working together. How does your program help to open up the lines of communication and how can those learnings be shared with the business community in general?

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

The Fund has a track record for successfully engaging a broad set of stakeholders to set ambitious goals for improving educational outcomes for Chicago public school students.

We believe that we engage in one of the most transparent and broad-based strategic planning processes to ensure the cross-fertilization of ideas among the private, education, and non-profit sectors to identify the critical levers of change. For example, our most recent strategic planning process engaged more than 100 people from these sectors, including community based organizations. Once you collectively define priorities and quantify outcomes as much as possible, open and ongoing communication is a natural by-product. Early buy-in, along with regular and transparent dialogue about progress maintains collective responsibility. Dakarai I. Aarons (Moderator):

Our guests are hard at work answering the thoughtful questions you’ve submitted. Keep them coming!

Comment from Dr. Stan Levenson, Author and Consultant:

I am familiar with The Chicago Public Education Fund as I am with funds around the country. I want to commend all of you for the work that you are doing. It is influencing education funds around the country. Stan Levenson, Author, Big-Time Fundraising for Today’s Schools, Corwin Press.

Question from Linda Sampietro, Elementary Teacher, CT:

I have two questions for you please. First, does this service extend to other states such as CT? Also, in addition to monies, exactly what type of hands-on assistance is given to schools that have previously been performing below performance standards?

Judith Feldman, The Renaissance Schools Fund:

Great questions. As of now, The Renaissance Schools Fund is focused solely on supporting activity within the Chicago public school system, but several outstanding venture philanthropies exist that support new school development and education reform throughout the country. NewSchools Venture Fund is a great example.

As far as the sorts of hands-on assistance we and our partners provide, it includes: diagnosing challenges faced by our new schools and using our financial outlays to support very strategic grant awards that allow us to bring in national experts to provide targeted technical support in areas such as performance assessment, professional development, remediation curricula development and implementation, long-term growth planning and financial modeling. Also, many of our investor partners provide significant resources to partner schools in addition to their tremendous financial investment. For many of them, this hands-on involvement is an essential component of their investment. Some serve on school and/or school network boards, and/or provide counsel on professional services, mentor and tutor, expose students to career paths, provide internships, etc. And, as you would expect, these are extremely busy business and civic leaders, and private individuals. They are living and breathing this mission in addition to tackling their other everyday demands on time. A few examples are described at the end of this response.

One other point of clarification -- RSF focuses on supporting new public schools that have opened in targeted communities with a history of underperforming schools. We have invested in 65 new schools and counting, that will serve nearly 33,000 children when at capacity. Many of the best practices being conducted at our schools are being recognized and implemented at older, previously underperforming schools, thereby helping to achieve broader, systemic change beyond our portfolio of new schools. Examples of recent district-wide initiatives include: (1) Longer School Day: The effort to increase the CPS school day by 15 minutes in the 2007 CTU contract negotiations; (2) Longer School Year: The development of summer instruction and early start programs for high school freshman; (3) Greater Flexibility: The creation of the AMPS program, granting high performing traditional schools greater freedom in exchange for accountability.

We are thrilled that the successes in our new schools are impacting the more traditional counterparts. That is part of the design of the initiative – to not only launch new, high performing schools but also to create a culture of best practices transfer and information sharing throughout the system that makes us all better and provides more and more of Chicago’s children with access to high quality public education options.

Examples of Financial + Hands-On Investment by Our Partners: The Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy, operated by the Noble Network of Charter Schools. Rowe-Clark is a reflection of both personal and corporate commitments to improving Chicago’s schools. John Rowe, Chairman of Exelon, and his wife Jeanne and son Bill, along with Frank Clark, Chairman and CEO of ComEd and his wife, Vera, together with Chicago-based Exelon Corporation, have invested over $4.2 million and countless hours of ongoing strategic counsel, board service, classroom volunteerism, tutoring and mentoring, to help launch the math and science academy in one of Chicago’s most underserved communities. Students spend an extra month in school per year and receive 33% more core instruction time than their peers attending traditional district high schools. In its first year, an overwhelming 291 students applied for 150 available seats at Rowe-Clark. Perspectives Charter Schools partnered with the Illinois Institute of Technology and Motorola to create a math and science middle/high school. Noble Street partnered to create a health sciences high school with the University of Illinois Chicago, LSV and Abbott Labs. In both cases, the investor partners are contributing start up funding but they are also supporting the schools with curriculum development and providing students with exposure to science practitioners and tools. And The Boeing Company has been a big supporter of supporting the replication of high performing existing public schools in the Chicago Public Schools district, including a second Disney elementary school campus that builds on the success of the original Walt Disney Magnet School and serves children from all over the city -- some of whom travel 1.5 hours each way to access this new high performing option.

Question from Adam Kissel, PhD candidate, University of Chicago:

University of Chicago Nobel laureate James Heckman has found that return on investment is higher when the investment is earlier in a child’s life: “Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation.” Are philanthropists taking account of this finding as they set funding priorities?

Judith Feldman, The Renaissance Schools Fund:

Yes, we strongly agree with the research indicating the importance of early education, and so do many philanthropists. Our schools – be they elementary or high school – are frequently seeing students coming in several grade levels behind and we have worked with a number to develop remediation programs. It is clear that we need to reach students as early as possible. While we work in new school development for elementary, middle and high schools, we -- and our investor partners -- are strongly supportive of elementary school models that include pre-K programs.

Question from Debra Franciosi, Associate Director, Project CRISS:

Teacher quality is THE key factor in increasing student achievement, yet what is done in terms of professional development is highly susceptible to the whim of educational fads. How are these philanthropists deciding what initiatives to support?

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

We agree, and research says teachers are the most important school-related factor when it comes to a student’s success.

We see professional development as a component of talent management. Professional development should be based on specific needs of teachers and students. Effective development must also include an accountability component, ensuring that what is learned via professional development translates into measurable improvement in teacher practice and, ultimately, student outcomes. This accountability dimension protects against educational fads.

Through this lens, we decided to seed the Chicago Teacher Advancement Program. The program ties relevant, on-going, job-embedded professional development with performance-based compensation. Good teaching doesn’t just happen, and when we see evidence of it, we should reward it. Chicago TAP is an effective teacher talent management strategy with professional development at its core.

Question from Linda Lenz, publisher, Catalyst Chicago:

Who sets the agenda and direction -- the school district or the foundation? ... Are you “buying” public policy? :-)

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

If you could buy public policy, we don’t have enough money on the table =).

First, The Chicago Public Education Fund is venture capital for public education. With a relatively limited infusion of financial capital, we certainly and deliberately help frame the conversation around the critical levers for improving student outcomes in Chicago public schools. Our strategic planning process assumes that we don’t have all of the answers. We make a broad set of stakeholders part of the solution and work toward deliberate alignment with the school system.

While we certainly don’t buy policy, we work with the school system to influence policy when we think it is in the best interest of children. For example, you no longer have to teach in CPS for 6 years before becoming a principal. And, we ensured that charter school teachers who are National Board Certified are eligible for state stipends.

Question from Carrie Stewart:

With the state of our economy, how hard will it be to raise capital? Will people be more averse to risk?

Judith Feldman, The Renaissance Schools Fund:

A burning question that is on everyone’s minds. While the economy is certainly likely to make our efforts more challenging, the urgency around this initiative is allowing us to continue on a successful course. Conversations with prospective new investors and existing supporters reaffirm this view. Education is critical to preparing our young people to succeed in the world, especially in today’s global economy. Moreover, a strong public education system is critical to our national competitiveness. Our investors are acutely aware of this. While the education, business and civic communities in Chicago are particularly inspiring in their commitment to this cause, our conversations with local and national investors and venture philanthropists around the country suggest that capital will be available nationally – via public and private investment and partnership. (You have probably noticed that a significant portion of the President’s Economic Stimulus package has been dedicated to investments in education.) What the current state of the economy will force entrepreneurs to do even more, is to be better, smarter, more efficient and more strategic with how we go about fundraising and how we invest the new capital – and that’s not a bad thing.

Dakarai I. Aarons (Moderator):

Judith Feldman is willing to answer any further questions you may have offline at or 312-853-3696. You can reach Janet Knupp and others at the Chicago Public Education Fund at 312-558-4500

Question from Nancy Shakowski, Educator:

I understand the mayor just appointed a new school leader for Chicago Public Schools. How will that impact your work in Chicago?

Janet Knupp, The Chicago Public Education Fund:

Mayor Daley certainly has a strong track record in selecting talented individuals to lead our city’s schools – talent from which the whole nation now benefits through the recent appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education.

The Chicago Public Education Fund has a reputation for working well with a variety of business, government, education, philanthropic, and community leaders. Since The Fund’s inception, we’ve successfully navigated working relationships with three union presidents, three state superintendents, and, now, three CPS CEOs. In that spirit, we welcome Ron Huberman to this challenging post. There is so much more we need to do to make Chicago the world-class big-city school district we all want it to be. We expect Ron shares this ambition. Dakarai I. Aarons (Moderator):

Thanks for all the great questions, and many thanks to Janet and Judith for their time and insights. Unfortunately, we have more questions than time, so we’ll have to leave the discussion there. Check to find out more information about these groups. A transcript of this chat will be available on Education Week’s Web site shortly:

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