Forget Superman, charter schools are waiting for Oprah

By Scott Olster, associate editor

FORTUNE -- While we are only just approaching October, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas for the charter school movement. Since the documentary Waiting for Superman opened in select theaters last week, a cast of notables have announced a cascade of donations and investment pledges for charters, and it looks it's just the beginning of this holiday season.

The documentary, which highlights the myriad challenges of the national public education system, focuses on a handful of charter schools that have been able to educate (and graduate) students who have been largely written off by much of the system. The film pits the most successful of charter schools against the least successful traditional public schools, positioning the unions as the single largest impediment to effective school reform. It is, in other words, a commercial for charter schools with immensely high production values.

And the commercial is working.

Last Friday, Oprah Winfrey devoted her show to school reform, featuring Waiting for Superman and its director, Davis Guggenheim. She also announced that her Angel Network would donate $6 million to six charter school organizations.

During the same episode of Oprah, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg announced his $100 million pledge to support public schools in Newark, New Jersey through his foundation, Startup: Education.

While the funds are not directly tied to the charter movement, the fact that Zuckerberg made the announcement during the Waiting for Superman episode was a boost for this particular brand of school reform just the same. And Zuckerberg visited a KIPP (which stands for Knowledge is Power Program) charter school in Newark with Mayor Cory Booker after making his pledge official.

And if that weren't enough good news for the movement, the Denver-based Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund, announced on Wednesday that they had secured $80 million in initial commitments toward $160 million expansion fund, with donations coming from the Walton Family Foundation and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, organizations supporting the Waiting for Superman social action campaign.

The fund also announced that it would give $20 million to six charter school networks, also known as charter management organizations, two of which are parent organizations of schools featured in the documentary (KIPP LA Prep and Harlem Success Academy).

And charter schools across the country have organized with Paramount Pictures to schedule screenings over the next couple of weeks, both to rally their current base of donors and to attract new ones.

"We'll be doing a pre-screening for our staff. We'll be inviting our core donors to come, people who've been involved in the investment at a significant level," says Jill Willis, spokesperson for the YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school network based in Houston and one of the six schools to receive a $1 million grant from Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network.

Charter school KIPP Baltimore brought in a net of $35,000 from their recent screening of the movie. A week later, the school received a $10,000 check from a first-time individual donor who had attended the screening.

"Our primary purpose was to rally our base to become advocates for more high quality public education options and to attract new people to that conversation," says Jason Botel, executive director at the KIPP Baltimore charter school.

On average, most charter schools receive less government funding than traditional public schools ($2,980 less per pupil, according to a June 2010 study by Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel at Western Michigan University).

At the same time, approximately 17% of charter schools have achieved academic results that were significantly better than traditional public schools, according to a 2009 study by the CREDO National Charter School Study at Stanford University.

The funding gap is largely due to the fact that very few charters provide the breadth of services that traditional public schools are obligated to provide, such as special education, English as a second language, and other support programs that are eligible for government funding.

While every state has its own funding approach toward charter schools, most charter organizations need to raise private funds to support facilities maintenance and to come up with the capital to expand and build new schools.

According to Ryan Dolibois, chief development officer at YES Prep, 80-85% of the school system's operating budget comes from public funding, leaving the remainder to be raised from private sources, such as the Dell Foundation, the Gates Foundation and individual donors.

"This year, we have a $42 million budget. We'll need to raise somewhere around $12 million," says Dolibois.

YES has already raised $8 million toward this goal and expects a significant uptick in individual donations this year.

"Last year, we raised $1.5 million in individual donations. Building on the momentum of the 'Oprah Effect' and the documentary, we hope to grow individual gifts by 50-80%," says Jill Willis, spokesperson for YES.

Like several of the schools featured in Waiting for Superman, the YES schools have an extended 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. school day, a longer school year, and teachers that are on call to work with students on evenings and weekends.

School systems like Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone (featured in Waiting for Superman) even go so far as to take a "cradle to grave" approach to education, offering support services for the entire family to ensure the success of its students. Services like these come at a significant cost.

Nevertheless, achieving sustainability, a point at which charters will be able to operate schools without seeking private investment, is considered by many as the holy grail for the charter movement, the major proof point that charters are realistic, affordable alternatives to traditional public education. But it's still unclear if sustainability is any more than a pipe dream for most charters.

While the charter school groups featured in the documentary and those receiving high profile donations may be well positioned for success, several charters are not nearly as fortunate.

"There are 'haves' and 'have nots.' Some have a lot of private money, and others really get very little. Some have absolute palaces. And others are in burned out supermarkets and buildings that don't appear to be up to health codes," says Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who focuses on charter schools.

Meanwhile, the charter school organizations that have been touted as major successes are under the gun to expand their networks and build new schools to justify (and, in many cases, qualify) for the millions that they are receiving. The KIPP network is planning to double its student population from 26,000 to 55,000 in the next five years.

The rapid growth plans have already taken a toll. The L.A. Times reported on Wednesday that billionaire education philanthropist Eli Broad and a handful of other donors had to inject $700,000 in emergency funds into the Los Angeles-based ICEF Public Schools to keep its network of 15 charter schools afloat. The article reported that the network built 11 schools in three years and was left with little reserves to support its operations.

While it's unclear whether charter schools will solve the education system's woes, as Waiting for Superman suggests, it is certainly clear that the movement's moment in the sun has come. To top of page

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