By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
The charter school movement, begun 16 years ago as an alternative to struggling public schools, will today make its strongest claim on mainstream American education when a national group announces the most successful fundraising campaign in the movement's history -- $65 million to create 42 schools in Houston.
The money, which comes from some of the nation's foremost donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, would make the Knowledge Is Power Program the largest charter school organization in the country. KIPP, which runs three schools in Washington, has produced some of the highest test scores among publicly funded schools in the District and has made significant gains in the math and reading achievement of low-income students in most of its 52 schools across the country.
The announcement, several school improvement experts said, raises the charter school movement to a new level of influence, financial strength and public notice. The number of independently run, taxpayer-supported schools has grown rapidly, to nearly 4,000, since the movement began in 1991. But that counts for only about 5 percent of public schools, and most have been small and overlooked. With the KIPP announcement, experts said, donors will be looking for more ways to expand the most successful models and build large systems, as KIPP plans to do in Houston.
"The public demand for these independent public schools is clearly catching on," said Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform.
Charters are public schools, usually opened by frustrated educators or parents, that receive tax dollars but are run independently of local districts. Their students take the same state tests that students in other public schools do.
Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, said the new KIPP grants, dwarfing the $10.5 million secured last year by the Green Dot charter schools in California, help fulfill the dream of charter school organizers to energize public education with independent schools.
Charter advocates have long argued that their biggest role would be to force regular public schools to improve because of the competition for students. There have been signs of that, with District officials proposing changes as charters have captured 26 percent of public school students, but many parents contend that regular schools have not improved quickly enough and are demanding more charters.
But some parent groups, such as District-based Save Our Schools, say charters should be stopped because they are draining the best students out of public school systems. The group has sued to restrain the charter movement in the District.
Charter schools come in many forms, and some have poor results. National studies suggest that students on average do not perform better in charter schools than they do in regular public schools, but that has not diminished the popularity of high-achieving programs such as KIPP, Green Dot, YES in Texas or Amistad in Connecticut.
KIPP began 13 years ago in Houston as a fifth-grade experimental class taught by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, then in their 20s. At first, they failed to raise any corporate money for their formula of nine-hour school days; Saturday classes; required summer school; creative teaching; frequent games, songs and field trips; and focus on test results.
KIPP officials said donations for the Houston expansion included $30 million from Houston Endowment, the Hines Interests Limited Partnership and philanthropists Laura and John Arnold. The Gates Foundation pledged $10 million and the Walton Family Foundation, $8.7 million. (Melinda Gates is a member of the Washington Post Co. board.) GAP clothing stores founders Doris and Don Fisher -- KIPP's leading backers since 2000 -- pledged $5.3 million.
Feinberg, who oversees Houston's eight KIPP schools, said he was "humbled, excited and scared to death" by the expansion, which he conceived with Houston businessmen Shawn Hurwitz and Leo Linbeck III, who is also an adjunct faculty member at Rice and Stanford universities.
KIPP is also expanding in cities such as New York, where Levin supervises four schools and plans to add five by 2012, and the District, where KIPP's Susan Schaeffler plans to go from three to six schools by 2009. The $65 million will go only for expansion in Houston.
KIPP principals have the power to hire and fire staff and choose curriculum and disciplinary methods in consultation with teachers as long as students show significant achievement gains. They train at Stanford University and through internships, a process Hurwitz said convinced philanthropists that the new schools would also succeed.
Although KIPP receives tax dollars for each student it enrolls, private money is often needed to acquire facilities and hire staff at the outset. KIPP officials said they need on average between $1,000 and $1,500 per student above what they receive from public sources to support special features such as longer school days and week-long field trips to other cities.
"As long as KIPP continues to produce results in the classroom," Linbeck said, "it will continue to grow."
About 85 percent of KIPP students are low-income, and almost all are black or Hispanic. KIPP middle schools take many who are two years behind in fifth grade and bring them up to grade level by the eighth.
But some critics say such impressive statistics stem in part from techniques that shape who attends the schools. Some who cannot adjust to high standards and long days return to regular public schools, these critics say, leaving KIPP with the best.
"KIPP's design is not the solution to the challenges of educating high-need students overall," said Caroline Grannan, a San Francisco public school advocate who focuses on charters. "It would be heartening to see the funders find a way to provide that kind of support for a greater cross section of high-need students."
Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he thought the most important aspect of the announcement was that so much of the money was raised from Houston area sources. "In the final analysis," he said, "charter schools will be sustained by state and local efforts that include private as well as public funding."