Education Funding

Major Foundation Gets Set to Open a Charter School

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 17, 2010 5 min read
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One of the nation’s largest private foundations has been authorized to run its own charter school, which it plans to open in fall 2011.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has announced it will open a charter school in its home base of Kansas City, Mo., with an initial class of 75 students in 5th grade and add a grade each year through 12th grade.

While other major philanthropies, such as the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, Ark., have given millions of dollars to charter schools, it is believed that the Kauffman Foundation is the largest and most prominent private foundation to have decided to run its own charter school. And though other organizations with “foundation” in their names have started charter schools, staff members from national charter school organizations and philanthropic organizations couldn’t point to any that are grantmaking foundations, as is the Kauffman Foundation.

The Kauffman Foundation has about $2 billion in assets, which puts it among the top 30 largest private foundations in the United States, according to its website. The Missouri state board of education approved the charter on June 15, and the University of Missouri-Columbia will provide oversight for the new school, which will be called the Ewing Marion Kauffman School.

“There are many foundations for which funding charter schools is a priority,” said Lois Leveen, the director of communications for the Portland, Ore.-based Grantmakers for Education. “This is really their school,” she said of the Kauffman plan. “That is what seems to be new about this.”

“All of our efforts are focused on having a really good start,” said Munro C. Richardson, the vice president of education for the Kauffman Foundation. He said the foundation expects to spend up to $10 million over a decade on the school, but it does aim for the school to eventually become self-sustainable. The value of having a private foundation back a charter school, he said, is that the school leadership doesn’t have to concentrate so intently on the cost of starting a school.

Munro Richardson, vice president of education at the Kauffman Foundation, characterizes high performing charter schools as having rigor, engagement and a sense of urgency among the staff and students.
—From the Kauffman Foundation

“We’re front-loading the support from the foundation so the school can focus on teaching and learning instead of worrying about fundraising,” he said.

Charter schools receive public funding, but operate outside the regular public education structure and often augment public aid with private support.

The Kauffman Foundation provides grants nationally for education in the areas of research and policy (Education Week has been a recipient for coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education), but the grantmaker has only supported education programs in the Kansas City, Mo., area, according to Mr. Richardson.

He said the foundation provided backing for the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of charter schools known as KIPP, to open schools in Kansas City. It also supported Teach For America, which recruits recent college graduates to work in understaffed schools, to get established in that city.

‘Rolling Up’ Sleeves

Mr. Richardson said the foundation has already selected a board to run its new charter school; four of the board’s seven members, who include himself, are Kauffman employees. He said the foundation favors an educational approach for the school that will provide rigorous college preparation and offer a longer-than-usual school day and school year.

As models of the approach that Kauffman plans to take in its school, he cited Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and Boston Preparatory Charter Public School, both located in Boston, and Uncommon Schools, in New York City. He said that the foundation has created “the framework and overall philosophy” of the school, but that its leaders will also be able to make it their own.

Charter school supporters said it’s important for the charter school movement that a large philanthropy such as the Kauffman Foundation has decided to operate its own school.

“I do think it’s significant they are rolling up their sleeves, and they are going to operate a charter school in Kansas City,” said Todd M. Ziebarth, the vice president for state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in Washington. “They have a track record of knowing what works and doesn’t in both the charter environment and urban education.”

Alex Medler, the vice president of policy and research for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, based in Chicago, said it’s “exciting” to have a large foundation become a charter school operator.

“Foundations, when they make siginificant changes, they usually think about it pretty deeply,” Mr. Medler said. He said he thinks that the Kauffman plan to open a charter school could spur other grantmakers to do the same.

Mr. Richardson said the Kauffman Foundation is “putting our reputation on the line” and putting the name of the philanthopy’s founder, the late Ewing Marion Kauffman, on the line as well. The school is named after Mr. Kauffman, who started and made a fortune from the pharmaceutical company Marion Laboratories Inc. The company merged in 1989 with the Merrell Dow division of the Dow Chemical Co. to become Marion Merrell Dow Inc.

“One of the challenges of the grantmaker is that your grants are only as good as the organizations you have to invest in,” said Mr. Richardson. “One of the things that the Kauffman School allows us to do is get more directly involved in doing this work. We understand that involves some risk. Under normal circumstances, not all the grants work out well.”

When Diane Ravitch, a New York University education scholar and critic of charter schools, was asked whether the Kauffman Foundation’s plan to start a charter school is a positive development, she quipped in an e-mail message: “And what will they prove? That lots of resources make a difference and that every school should have someone with deep pockets to keep classes small and keep the school well-supplied with the best of everything.”

Ms. Ravitch, who co-writes a blog for Education Week’s website, added, “If they succeed, perhaps they will prove that we should do the same for every school.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as Major Foundation Gets Set to Open a Charter School

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