Whitney: Your latest on Newark schools wasting so much money has got me thinking. I share your outrage at the wasted lives, and your belief that if this were happening to anybody other than low-income and minority students, society would not stand for it. I also agree that rules making it impossible to fire incompetent people have to go, as do the insane contractual rules you point out.

But I think your emphasis on us spending too much money is, in the long-term, a losing approach for charter school advocates, and public education generally. Sure, you can cherry-pick Newark, or Abbot districts in New Jersey, or Kansas City, and say it is an outrage that they spend so much for such limited results. But as the Education Trust points out in report after report, low-income kids on average still attend schools in districts that spend less.

According to Ed Trust, this works in 3 ways:
–rich states get more federal money than poor states,
–within states, most states shortchange their high-poverty and high-minority school districts,
–within school districts themselves, districts spend less money in schools serving the most disadvantaged students.

I know you know all of this, because you write about it. But I would suggest that in light of this research, as an empirical matter, singling out Newark, or the Abbott districts is not a fair use of the facts. It would be as if an anti-charter group found a network of failing charter schools and argued that this proves charters don’t measure up.

But even more than that, in the long-term, charters are going to end up asking that more money be spent on education. I guarantee this will happen. In ten years, if not sooner, every successful charter advocate with vision will be saying that they can run a better school if there is more public funding for education.

This will happen because over time costs are going to go up, as successful charter schools try to retain their good teachers, principals, and other leaders, and salaries (which are the biggest driver of any school’s costs) have to rise. As I’ve said before, a few charter operators with great brands may be able to consistently recruit superb young teachers and have them turn over every 3-4 years, but the overall talent pool is such that many charter schools will have to do with decent to pretty good (but not great) teachers, and work to develop and retain them. This will cost money, because like every other human being, as teachers get older they need and want raises.

Taking this one step further, I predict that smart charter school operators will also soon begin arguing for greater public investments in early childhood education and health care (among other things). This will not be about making excuses for poor performance. This will be the simple fact that no matter how great KIPP’s outcomes (I’m choosing KIPP here simply because of their excellent reputation and name-recognition), they would be yet better if the kids arrived knowing more words, with fewer vision problems, less missed classes because of undiagnosed tooth-aches, etc. And once KIPP, and Achievement First, and Green Dot, and all the rest start saying this, it will be clear that it is not being offered up as an excuse, given the source.

I think you basically agree with all of the above. Perhaps then it is a question of emphasis. I would suggest that we should use the success of individual charter schools, as well as successful district schools, to argue that all schools should do what these schools do. And here’s the key: if that means more money needs to be spent, so be it. And here’s where we may disagree, I’m not sure. You, like much of the charter school movement, tend to conclude with the claim that “more money without reform will do nothing.” That’s true, but it is the wrong emphasis. I think we are better off with a positive message which says, “more money plus reform is the answer.” That claim is both more honest, and more strategic in the long term.


Whitney Tilson has recently been publicizing his reactions to a recent conference in DC, called “Charter Schools: Keeping the Promise or Dismantling Communities.” The opening comments by Ted Sizer, George Wood, and Linda Darling-Hammond were all balanced; the rest of the papers and presentations however, were aggressively anti-charter. I don’t have a problem criticizing charter schools, and I certainly do not think they are the single, or even principal, answer to our nation’s school woes. But so much of the conversation in this area is pure (and often harsh) rhetoric–on both sides of the issue.

You can find the papers themselves here. Since the conference, I met with 2 of the paper authors, and I found out that the papers are still in draft form. So if you have comments or suggestions I would consider contacting the various paper authors themselves. I do not know how willing they would be to consider changes, but it is worth a try. Caution: starting your letter by yelling about how charters are the best thing ever and public schools stink is not likely to get you far in persuading the paper writers, unless your only main is to vent.

I sent a note to the authors of one of the papers, a portion of which I included in (slightly) edited form here. By way of background, my letter was directed to an issue that loomed large at the conference, which is charter schools relying on private funding for support. I think this is an important issue for charter schools–not least because it goes to the question of sustainability. This private money is not going to flow to charter schools forever, which means that charter operators need to work on increasing public funding for all schools, including charter schools.

But that is not the concern that was expressed at the panel. At the panel, the idea seemed to be that there was something unfair or corrupt (or otherwise wrong) about raising private money to support charters. In response, I wrote the following:

You have a chart at the end of your paper that shows a network of foundations that support charter schools, and Maya Angelou School is specifically mentioned. The tone of the paper and the presentation of the chart seem to suggest that there is something nefarious about this private funding. I’m not sure what your intent was, but that’s how I read it.

So please hear me out on this. Do I like having to spend time raising money privately? No. It is time consuming, and draining, and really really hard and I would rather spend my time teaching a street law class at Maya, or tutoring a student at Burroughs elementary school down the block from me, or, for that matter, taking a walk with my wife or reading a good book. Do I wish we funded public education at sufficient levels so that the public schools and charter schools would have allotments that would allow us to run schools with small classes, extended day, literacy and numeracy coaches, mental health counselors, etc. all on public dollars? Yes, absolutely.

So why do we rely on private funding at all? Because we believe that the kids who come to our school, especially in light of the population we serve, need and deserve all of these things–they need and deserve the xtra hours, the small classes, the literacy and numeracy, the job training, the counseling and emotional services. In light of our public funding levels in this society, if you choose to run a school that serves kids like those we recruit, you have a choice. What do I do when I have a parent who says, “my daughter was abused and needs counseling services at the school,” or “my son has had special needs that were never diagnosed so he needs small classes,” or “my child needs help even after graduating your school, they need help surviving their first year of college because they are the first in their family to go to college and it will be an alien and difficult experience for them.”

I can do one of 2 things. I can say, sorry, the public dollars aren’t enough to pay for that, so your child will have to go without. (And we do say that, by the way, all the time: there are so many things we would like to do at Maya and cannot–we’d like to serve kids three healthy hot meals a day, that are really tasty and prepared with locally grown foods from an organic garden that our kids maintain–and thereby learn about science and agriculture. But we cannot afford it.)

But sometimes, I can say to the parent, yes we can provide that, because such and such foundation has given us money for precisely that thing. So what should I do in that situation? Should we say no because we believe it is bad to take money from foundations or private donors? I don’t think so.

One more point about the private funding that is really important to me. You might be thinking that the problem is that the private money is going to only one school, or just a few, not all schools. I understand that point, I truly do, and I expect it might be why some might suggest there is something wrong with us getting money from the Gates foundation but not something wrong when DCPS gets a big grant from Gates (which DCPS got just a few weeks ago, and nobody complained, at least that I know of).

I want to be clear about my view on that: I believe that every single student who needs it should be able to go to a school with an extended day program, with counseling support, and with the other things that I have discussed. This is why I consistently lobby for increased public education funding, including, as we discussed, for the school modernization money. But I also believe that individual programs like ours can take this money, and if we do the right thing with it, we can be part of the public policy argument that suggests that these additional services are worth providing to every student. For example, one of the reasons that public education (and the same is true about alternatives to incarceration in the juvenile justice system) is under-funded in my view, is that people believe the money won’t make a difference. If Maya Angelou develops a model of comprehensive schooling, with extra services, and it works, then advocates like you can use our success as an example of why this is a good investment, and every kid in the city and country should get this.

I really hope we can continue this conversation. Even though we might disagree about some things, I think we might in the end agree about some too. I value your opinions, even when we don’t agree. I hope you take this in the constructive spirit in which it is intended.