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Who is Funding the Backlash against John Oliver’s Charter School Critique?

by Paul Perry
Inside Philanthropy
September 14th, 2016

On August 21, 2016, John Oliver stepped into the heated debate around charter schools. His segment reported on mismanagement and misspending at charter schools in several states. It also called into question the free market approach advocated by some in the charter school community. How? By, among other things, hilariously swiping at former presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich’s comparison between schools and pizzerias.

In response, the Center for Education Reform—a charter school advocacy outfit funded by big names such as the Walton Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation—has launched a $100,000 competition called “Hey John Oliver! Back off My Charter School!” in which it is soliciting responses to Oliver’s segment from charter schools around the country. The organization has noted that funding for this particular campaign will come from “program funds” that it collects from over 1000 donors each year. That said, these big-name funders have a long history of supporting advocacy efforts for charter schools and this effort is just the latest salvo in a long-running battle that is reaching its 25th year.

As the charter school advocacy movement comes of age, even the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, Jeanne Allen, has tough words for its leaders. She notes that charter reformers have become “our own worst enemy” and that their agenda comes across as “narrow, hollow and hostile.” Earlier this summer, Allen released a white paper calling for a new direction for the charter school movement while calling into the question the money and muscle of funders and the organizations they sponsor to “struggle every day to defend what already exists.”

From 1991 to 2000, 36 laws were enacted governing the creation of new charter schools and two creating new full school choice programs. Since then, progress seems to have slowed and funders like Gates and Walton are beginning to ask why, even as they continue to cut checks. Part of this trend is obviously due simply to the initial ramp-up and early novelty of the movement when it was just getting started. Still, with all of this investment from major philanthropic institutions and withering critiques from major media figures like Oliver, many in the movement are questioning why it feels like more was accomplished in the early years of the movement than in the recent past.

As much as Oliver’s segment highlighted important distinctions between how charter schools and district schools operate, a 2015 report by the Mind Trust, a charter advocacy organization based in Indianapolis, found that most charters very closely resemble their district school counterparts despite claims about innovation in the sector. This is fueled by risk-averse authorizers and philanthropists who place big bets on well-established models, such as charter management organizations (CMOs), as opposed to radical new ideas.

Despite the mixed record for charters over the past quarter century, as noted by Oliver, major foundation dollars have flowed big time towards charters and away from traditional public schools. In fact, funding for charters increased from 3 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2010, while it was cut in half for district schools over the same period, according to Michigan State University researchers Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey Snyder.

But we wonder what more recent data might show. As we’ve reported, some emerging big ed funders like Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are looking beyond charters as they plot to reinvent American education. Personalized learning is one idea with the potential to edge aside charters in the competition for funder dollars, with major attention from Zuckerberg and Gates, as well as others from the tech philanthropy community.

A great many of the new activist philanthropists coming on the scene are focused on scalable solutions. Yet, as we’ve noted before, charters have struggled on this front. While large shares of students in some poor cities are now in charters, these schools still only educate 5 percent of all K-12 students—after 25 years of effort and billions of dollars in donor backing. Scaling the charters that are actually good is even harder.

If you’re a young tech type looking at what new solution might sweep over and remake the K-12 landscape, it’s not clear you’d see charters as an obvious candidate. How enthusiastic do you think Silicon Valley VCs might be about a product that had captured only 5 percent of market share after a quarter-century? At this point, funding charters looks more a bit more akin to backing direct services than fomenting a disruptive revolution.

All of which is to say that you can understand why charter backers might be so sensitive about John Oliver’s humorous broadside. As we’ve reported, the biggest charter funders have lately doubled down, but there’s a growing struggle underway for the hearts and minds of new funders coming on the scene.