Let’s say you’re running a foundation and you’ve been supporting charters and they are doing good work but they are only serving 25,000 kids and you’re wondering how you reach 250,000 or 2.5 million kids. What should the strategy be over the next 3-5 years?

Here is a high-level landscape review:

Concerns

States/districts are broke and it won’t improve much for years
The fiscal squeeze is increasing philanthropic gap for charters
Backfill funding to maintain historical gains reduces flexibility
Little R&D, weak market mechanisms, poor innovation climate

Observations

Volume level turned up pro/con on charters and performance employment
Sector working teaching problem instead of learning opportunity
ESEA 2011 will push college access but will give up the ‘good school promise’

Opportunities

Fed funds flowing and pushing some states forward (but will mostly backfill and perpetuate status quo)
New apps hold promise of personalized learning—better, cheaper, faster
Burgeoning edu-entrepreneurship sector with growing private capital interest

That’s a pretty mixed bag. It would be easy but not very productive to backfill cuts across the existing foundation portfolio.

Following are seven suggested investment strategies for a charter-friendly foundation seeking broader impact:

1.Require any backfill requests from charter operators to be accompanied by efforts to improve productivity.

2.Provide seed funding for promising school networks that blend online and onsite learning.

3.Support cities and states near tipping to a multi-provider portfolio of choice.

4.Build a research coalition with matching federal funds focused on the key questions of learning science.

5.Advocate for differentiated authorizing pathways for high performing networks, conversions, innovative schools, virtual schools, and subject providers (e.g., STEM, SpEd, foreign language).

6.Advocate that the worst 20% of schools of education be closed and replaced with network specific training and certification (e.g. High Tech High Graduate School).

7.Leverage grant making with mission related endowment investments in learning technology and learning venture funds.

The last point may seem self-serving as a partner in the only early stage learning venture fund, but it doesn’t make sense for foundations to ignore the other 95%–their endowments. The increase in the quality of learning deal flow and investment interest over the last three years is very promising. It is quite possible to hold a high bar for return and impact. It’s time to break down the artificial wall in foundations between the grantmaking and investment staff—they both can learn from each other. The push for productivity, performance-based employments, new application development platforms, and global markets, learning technologies are a very attractive sector (and in a market like this, what else are you going to invest in?). It’s quite possible that mission related investments of at least the same size as grants could have a larger long-term impact on global learning outcomes.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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