Stanford Social Innovation Review: Private Financing for Public Education

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Article

In the back of the auditorium on opening day at Blackstone Valley Prep middle school, a petite woman with closely cropped gray hair seemed an unlikely pioneer of a new model of public school financing.

In the hallways, middle-school students slammed their freshly painted blue lockers and rushed to get into their classrooms before the first bell of the first school year at the newest school in Central Falls, R.I., a down-at-the-heels factory town of fewer than 20,000 people.

Gray skies and drizzling rain didn’t dampen the mood as parents, teachers, administrators, and city and state officials toasted an unprecedented collaboration between a traditional public school district and a network of charter schools. For a moment at least, it seemed that district and charter schools—public schools serving the same families and communities—could not only coexist, but support one another.

Frances Gallo, the former superintendent of Central Falls, did not speak at the opening ceremonies. Under Gallo’s leadership, and against enormous pressure from the teachers’ union, Central Falls became the first school district in the United States to sign a facilities investment agreement as part of a broader District-Charter Compact.

After the event, Gallo explained why she bucked the opposition to welcome charter schools. “I felt I was everyone’s superintendent,” says Gallo, her voice rising. Nearby districts have been attracted to Central Falls’ progress, and more than 20 District-Charter Compacts have been signed across the country, making the vitriol and even death threats she received more tolerable.

The decade-long battle over the expansion of charter schools—public schools operated outside of the supervision and requirements of traditional school districts—has been fueled by competition for scarce education funding. The District-Charter Compacts, supported with $40 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aim instead to share resources and expand the availability of financing while promoting collaboration between the two sectors.

The compacts are the Gates Foundation’s latest strategy in a long quest to improve access to high-quality K-12 education. At the core of the foundation’s facilities strategy are new financing mechanisms to catalyze private financing for public education, strengthening not only the emerging networks of high-performing charter schools, but the resource-strapped public school districts that serve the same communities. In addition to grants, the foundation has provided capital to finance charter school construction on public property and even in former district schools. The compact also obligates charter schools to help the district with teacher training and curriculum and the district to make resources available equitably.

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