Education Funding

Leaders May Disband New Charter School Organization

By Caroline Hendrie — November 05, 2003 4 min read
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Leaders of the fledgling National Charter Schools Alliance are considering dissolving the organization just eight months after it was formed, largely because expected foundation support for the venture failed to come through.

Organizers of the alliance conceived of it as a membership organization for state-level charter school associations and resource centers, and hoped it would emerge as the leading voice in Washington for the independently run public schools. (“Alliance Hopes to Serve as Voice for Charter Schools,” Nov. 13, 2002.)

But following the rejection by two prominent foundations of the group’s proposals for sizable grants, its board of directors had to let go three paid staff members in August. That move has led to the threat of a lawsuit by the organization’s former president, and board members are now weighing whether to disband the alliance altogether in the near future, according to Howard Fuller, the board’s chairman.

“We were not able to get the level of funding that we needed to move forward,” he said.

Funding for the alliance’s start-up activities and initial operations came from the Walton Family Foundation. The group had hoped to secure multiyear operating money from the Bentonville, Ark.-based philanthropy, as well as from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mr. Fuller, a former Milwaukee schools superintendent who is now the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, based at Marquette University in that city, said he and others were in the early stages of forming another national charter school association with a different thrust and governing structure from those of the alliance.

“It will be a totally new and different organization,” he said. “And I feel fairly optimistic about being able to get funding for it.”

Need Questioned

Yet some charter school experts question the need for a national membership organization focused solely on charter schools, which have multiplied to about 3,000 schools since Minnesota became the first state to authorize them in 1991.

“Even though there has been enormous opposition, the idea has spread far faster and wider than I would have ever thought possible, and it has spread without a national organization,” said Joe Nathan, an early supporter of the charter idea who directs the Center for School Change, located at the University of Minnesota.

The alliance was an outgrowth of the Charter Friends National Network, an organization housed at the Center for Policy Studies at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., that disbanded following the alliance’s incorporation last winter.

The Walton Foundation, established by Wal-Mart founder Sam M. Walton, was a strong backer of the network. The foundation provided grants to pay for the strategic planning that led to the alliance’s formation, as well as the search process that led to the hiring last spring of its first president.

Most of the money for the alliance’s operations from April through August came from a three-year grant that the foundation originally made to the network in 2001.

The alliance submitted proposals to both the Walton Foundation and the Gates Foundation for multiyear grants to continue operations, Mr. Fuller said, but those proposals were rejected.

In late March, the alliance’s board of directors met for the first time, and selected Marc Dean Millot as the organization’s president and chief executive officer.

Lawyers for Mr. Millot are now threatening legal action against the Walton Foundation, and possibly against the alliance and the Gates Foundation.

According to Mr. Millot’s lawyers, alliance leaders had expected to receive $750,000 from each of the philanthropies for the fiscal year starting last month. But then in early August, the organization’s leaders learned that “the foundations were reneging on their commitment to fund the alliance,” said Roger C. Simmons, a lawyer based in Frederick, Md., who is representing Mr. Millot.

Before joining the alliance, Mr. Millot held senior positions at New American Schools in Alexandria, Va., and the Washington branch of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp.

Mr. Simmons and an associate said they expected Mr. Millot to sue the Walton Foundation. They also said they were negotiating with the alliance’s lawyers in the hope of reaching a financial settlement that would compensate Mr. Millot for the damage done to his career when he was cashiered.

Members of the alliance board who were queried by Education Week referred all questions to Mr. Fuller, who declined to comment about the alliance’s dealings with Mr. Millot.

Officials of the Walton Foundation could not be reached for comment last week. A spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation declined to comment on the charges by Mr. Millot’s lawyers that the philanthropy had backed out on a commitment to the alliance.

In the wake of the alliance’s failure to secure funding, Mr. Fuller said he was pursuing plans to set up an organization with a slightly different mission.

Rather than seeking to represent the operators of charter schools through their state-level organizations, he said, the group he would like to form would be open to charter school supporters who “agreed with the principles of the organization.”

That way, he said, the group would be free to take stances on issues that might not be in the best interest of all charter operators.

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