Aug 112012

Over at EdWeek and the Gates Foundation’s blog, Anthony Cody and foundation leaders are exchanging letters about a variety of topics. Vicki Phillips recently posted about the use of student data in teacher evaluations, a post that received a bit of praise and a lot of criticism from Cody.

Here is the part of Cody’s response that I am going to focus on in this post:

Ms. Phillips’ post focuses almost exclusively on the work of the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, an initiative of the Gates Foundation. While the Gates Foundation has invested upwards of $300 million in this project, they have spent several billion over the past few years funding other groups who are active partisans in the war on the teaching profession. We have not yet seen enough of the systems under development by the MET project to really understand them, so I will focus my attention on the other fruits borne by Gates Foundation investments.

The first question that arises when discussing teacher effectiveness is how we measure student learning. While Ms. Phillips distances herself from the use of test scores, this has been central to the reforms advanced by the Gates Foundation thus far. It is possible that the MET project will chart new ground, but before it does so, it will need to reverse all the policies and laws mandating evaluation systems that rely on test scores that have been passed at the insistence of the Gates Foundation and programs it has funded.

I’m going to avoid the issue of “the war on the teaching profession,” but I do think it would be helpful to have an overall picture of how the Gates Foundation is supporting various teacher-related issues. I’m particularly interested in teacher assessment and human capital management for the following reasons:

  • To say there is a lot of debate about how teachers should be evaluated would be a gross understatement. The debate intensified during the past few years, at least in part due to budget struggles and requirements for the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top. We’ve also seen a flurry of legislative activity regarding teacher evaluations (e.g. NY, TN, FL, LA).
  • The way the teaching force is managed – including, but not limited to teacher preparation, professional development, certification, tenure, evaluation, benefits, hiring, and firing – is a big deal for both current teachers and future teachers.

The primary purpose of this post is to review the Gates Foundation support of teacher-related issues through advocacy, professional development, evaluation, and other means from 2008 to the present. I am going to exclude all grants related to the Measures of Effective Teaching Project and all Washington State grants. I excluded the former since Cody’s post is specifically about the non-MET Project work of the foundation, and I think it’s better to treat the Project as separate from the rest of the foundation’s teacher-related work. I excluded the Washington State grants because the foundation’s giving is markedly different in their home region and better addressed as a separate issue entirely (see here).


I started with the “B&MGF Spending, 2008-2010.xlsx” dataset (available here) that I used for an earlier post. I’m looking at those three years for the following reasons:

  1. They are the most recent years for which IRS Form 990s are currently available.
  2. These three years cover the first two years of the Obama Presidency, including the earliest version of Race to the Top.
  3. The foundation started focusing on teacher quality issues in 2009. Bill mentioned this transition in his 2009 Annual Letter.

I then selected grants that impact the teaching profession in one of the following ways:

  • Grants for advocacy related to teacher quality
  • Grants for research by academics, private companies, or think tanks
  • Grants for supporting current teachers
  • Grants for teacher evaluations
  • Grants for human capital development

An Excel file (“BMGF Spending, 2008-2010 TQ.xlsx”) listing these grants is available here. For the most part, I selected grants based on the descriptions provided by the foundation’s Form 990s. In a few cases, I included grants that do not specifically mention the teaching profession, but that likely did contribute to issues regarding the profession (e.g. EdTrust). Needless to say, it is entirely possible that a different person would include slightly different grants. For instance, one could argue that anything related to the Common Core State Standards should be considered teacher-related. I tried to err on the side of only including grants that were specific to teachers in some way. Here is an overview of the foundation’s giving:

  • The foundation funded a number of organizations that have supported test-based accountability for teachers: Teach Plus, Stand for Children, TNTP, EdTrust, Educators 4 Excellence, Parent Union, Advance Illinois, the PIE Network, and The National Council on Teacher Quality. The foundation has also made a few grants to the NEA and AFT for issues relating to teacher evaluations.
  • Teach for America, the Relay Graduate School of Education (“Uncommon Knowledge and Achievement”), TNTP, the Coalition of Urban Teacher Residencies and AUSL received grants that involve teacher training and preparation.
  • While the grants to organizations listed above get a good amount of attention, there are two other categories of grants that deserve attention: grants for research, and grants for development of specific tools related to teacher quality.
  • ETS, Harvard University, Teach for America, Public Agenda, and Urban Institute received funding for research related to teacher quality issues.
  • The foundation also supported five states in building data systems that will likely be used in teacher evaluations. Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio received grants “to develop and implement of model common definition of teacher of record and standard business process for linking and validating teacher and student data at the SEA level and a representative sample of districts.”
  • The Recovery School District, Atlanta Public Schools, D.C. Public Schools (through the D.C. Public Education Fund), Houston Independent School District, Newark Public Schools (through the NewSchools Venture Fund) and Tulsa Public Schools received grants related to changes in teacher evaluations and/or human capital management.
  • In a handful of instances, the foundation provided funding for programs designed to assist teachers, presumably with additional resources or tools.

That is not a comprehensive list of grantees, but I think it fairly represents the main strands in the foundation’s contributions.


Since Form 990s for the years 2011 and 2012 are not yet available, I pulled grants listed on the Gates Foundation website in order to get a look at the foundation’s teacher-related grants. Specifically, I searched for all grants from 2011 and 2012 related to College-Ready Education, Advocacy & Public Policy, and Research & Development. I believe that encompasses all Gates Foundation education grants announced during those years. A list of these grants is available here.

There is one key difference between the information collected from the Gates website and the information from Form 990s. The website lists grants announced (i.e. new grants), and grants may run for multiple years; Form 990s list money actually distributed during that year, and some, like Gates, include promises of future payments (although I did not collect info on future payments). For 2011 and 2012, the lists below are only new grants; there are still funds going out to organizations that received a multi-year grant during a previous year.

It’s worth looking at the 2011 and 2012 grants more closely. These are the most recently authorized grants and may be more likely to reflect the foundation’s current direction(s).

First, here is a list of all grants with commitments over $1,000,000 announced during 2011 (excluding the MET Project and Washington State):

Here is a list of all grants with commitments between $999,999 and $500,000 announced during 2011:

And a list of all grants with commitments less than $500,000 announced during 2011:

Below is a list of the Gates Foundation’s teacher quality/evaluation grants through July of 2012 (excluding the MET Project and Washington State):

 August 11, 2012  Posted by on August 11, 2012 Comments Off on The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Teacher Quality – An Overview
Jul 202012

Started by well-known hedge fund manager Julian Robertson and his family in the mid-1990s, the the Robertson Foundation supports a variety of forms of school choice, organizations focused on human capital, and an assortment of other education programs.1 As is the case with some other high-profile philanthropies, the Robertson Foundation looks to reform school systems, and create new schools to exert external pressure on existing schools.2

I gathered Form 990s for the fiscal years ending in 2002 through 2010, and pulled information about contributions made during each of those years. You can find all of these Form 990s through or Foundation Center’s 990 Finder. You can download a full summary of grant information contained on the foundation’s Form 990s here.

A few notes:

  • While the foundation education-related grants are partly NYC-focused, a few high-profile national organizations (e.g. KIPP, TFA, NSVF, BAEO) receive support as well.
  • Since this only looks at K-12 funding, I have not included the Robertson Scholars Program, a scholarship program that sends students to Duke and UNC. I included a few contributions to the University of Arkansas because this money is likely dedicated to the School Choice Demonstration Project at the Department of Education Reform.
  • The grants to the DC Public Education Fund support the DC IMPACT program. Other funders of the DC Impact program include the Walton Family Foundation, Broad Foundation, and Arnold Foundation.
  • Spencer Robertson, son of Julian Robertson, is the Executive Director of PAVE Academy, a NYC charter school.
  • Unfortunately, the foundation’s Form 990s do not include grant descriptions.

  1. The foundation supports a variety of non-education-related causes as well, but I’m interested in the education-related grants.
  2. See the foundation’s Public School Reform page.
 July 20, 2012  Posted by on July 20, 2012 Comments Off on Robertson Foundation, 2002-2010
Jul 042012

Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the GAP clothing company, began contributing to education-related causes through various philanthropic organizations in the late 1990s. The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund is the current foundation, although it was formerly known as the Doris and Donald Fisher Education Fund, is still sometimes abbreviated as D2F2, and earlier was known as the Pisces Foundation.

The Fishers were early supporters of Edison Schools, and have been major supporters of KIPP and Teach for America. Although I cannot find some of the Fisher’s earliest IRS 990s, the family also supported a young organization, The New Teacher Project, founded by Michelle Rhee. As noted on the Fisher’s 2011 Form 990, the foundation contributed $250,000 to Rhee’s newest organization, StudentsFirst.

I gathered Form 990s for the fiscal years ending in 2003 through 2011, and pulled information about contributions made during each of those years. You can find all of these Form 990s through or Foundation Center’s 990 Finder. You can see the information I pulled in an Excel file on my Data page or check out the results below.

A few notes:

  • Unfortunately, the Fishers do not provide a description of grants, only the name of the receiving organization and a dollar amount.
  • 2009 contributions may be low for a few reasons: a conservative approach to giving considering the financial situation; the death of Donald Fisher, which happened after the 2009 fiscal year; or simply a missing Form 990 if the Fishers gave through multiple foundations during that year.
  • While other major foundations garner more attention, the Fishers are one of a handful of donors providing support to some of the most important and influential education organizations: KIPP, TFA, NSVF, the Charter School Growth Fund, BAEO, CER, Education Reform Now, StudentsFirst, and state-based charter advocacy organizations.

 July 4, 2012  Posted by on July 4, 2012 Comments Off on Doris and Donald Fisher Education Giving, 2003-2011
Jun 262012

Entertainment Properties Trust, owner of approximately 28 facilities used by Imagine Schools, recently presented at a National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts investor forum. Here is a link to an audio recording of the presentation.

I was interested in EPT’s presentation given the recent closures of Imagine-run schools in St. Louis, Missouri.

CEO David Brain briefly discussed the growth of the charter school sector at the beginning of the presentation, but the more substantive comments begin at the 4:50 mark. I’ve transcribed these comments below1:

David Brain (4:50-7:15): Going back to education, for a minute. Notably in education, first thing I want to bring your attention to is we’ve moved from two different operators in education last year to now fourteen different operators we’re dealing with in the charter public school space. So we’re expanding our base of contacts and operators there. The other things is our anchor operator, we started in this category and is our largest operator, Imagine Schools, there’s been a lot of discussion and questions about them. Imagine did run into a rather severe conflict with the Department of Education in the state of Missouri and is going to lose a number of charters as a result of that. Those really largely stem not only from not only some personnel issues, but also from kind of the hyper-growth that Imagine went through, as a company and particularly in the Missouri market. The really good news about this is with what Imagine is incurring, we still don’t have a change in our expectation of cash flow because of a strength of their balance sheet, because of the cash flow coverage that is exhibited at the corporate level where we have guarantees, and the fact that we have a letter of credit to our benefit posted that’s two and a half times the rent at issue with these schools. We don’t see any interruption in the payment stream, we’ve never missed a month of rent on a charter public school, we do not expect to miss a month of rent on a charter public school. For all of the schools that are of issue right now it’s about a $70 million investment value. All of those locations are well underway with three major alternatives of recovery both in sublease to other charter operators, swapping those schools for performing Imagine schools otherwise in their portfolio that are unencumbered, and, subject to our underwriting – this is not something they can put to us, it’s something we can accept if we like – and or selling those properties. So we expect 2/3 or 3/4 of the monetary value involved in this issue to be resolved by the beginning of the school year, so very shortly. And even if it is not, I want to remind you of that letter of credit and cash flow support that, even if we carried it unoccupied and not utilized through the school year, we do not expect it to be any problem. So, that’s with regard to Imagine. By the way, I want to say that we are still very committed to the charter public school space. As I indicated at the top, the metrics are still very strong on a national basis, our base of contacts and client base is expanding in this industry. We had a particular concentration that we do not expect to repeat with five schools in one jurisdiction with one operator. But we’re all learning a little bit as we come through this and there are some growing pains in this industry, but it is still a very attractive industry and we’re dedicated to it as part of the fundamental platform of the company.

A few comments:

  • Most of this was covered during the May 1, 2012 investor call.
  • Interestingly, Brain never mentioned the personnel issues in St. Louis during the company’s May 1, 2012 investor call. He did, however, mentioned “a variety of factors” during that call.

The issue of Imagine came up again during the question and answer session. Two audience members asked questions that were directly related to Imagine. Below is a transcription of the first question and answer:

Question (19:45-22:25): “Would you describe what went wrong in Missouri with Imagine? You said something about a conflict of interest. What did they do wrong there?”

David Brain: Well they entered the market in very large scale, opening in a space of, Jerry, two years [Audience member, possibly Jerry Earnest: “one year”], one year, eight, nine schools embracing attendance of about 6,000, particularly in some very tough demographics of low-performance students. You don’t turn that ship – most guys who go into these urban areas with lower performing students do it in very small measure, grades K through 2 or 3. They tend to build their populations over time, their own culture, and so forth rather than trying to take on 5,000 students at one time, and turn that ship and that whole culture and bias towards education. They also had a person in the market that was fairly hard to deal with with a lot of the supervisors and authorizers and he didn’t have a great relationship and he’d tend to ignore all supervisory bodies and take a very tough attitude towards them. So a combination of politics and the manner which they entered brought them into kind of a cross-position and the authorities were intolerant of their performance. Their performance was harder to achieve year over year because of they way they were biting off so much at one time. So those combination of factors, and then we had a concentration, those are things we do not expect to repeat. We do not expect to repeat with any operator in any way and particularly with Imagine. These are all things we’re learning. Interestingly, going into this year when six of their schools went on probation and now charters are going to be revoked, enrollment went up 8%. One of the reasons is they have some of the nicest facilities, which are our buildings, in the market. This is one of the reasons the market is still positive. And the Mayor of St. Louis, who has been the harshest critic of Imagine’s performance, is pro-charter school. So with a pro-charter environment with good facilities and with the credit support we have, we’re very confident that this comes out in a good answer. We know that this is an optics problem of a great degree. We know it is a real performance problem also to some degree and we’re recognizing that. We’re not trying to be cavalier and shirk this off – we know it’s an issue. What we’re trying to communicate is we think we have enough underpinning here that financially we’re going to be fine in the short run, and fundamentally with the market and the facilities, we’re going to be good in the long run as well.

I can’t help but wonder if the “person in the market that was fairly hard to deal with” was Sam Howard. Howard, a former Executive VP and (I believe) the point man for Missouri operations, was placed on administrative leave in late 2011 after questions were raised about some some financial transactions relating to the construction of St. Louis facilities. He was replaced with Alan Olkes in November of 2011. According to Lori Waters, Imagine’s Director of External Relations, “Sam Howard is no longer with Imagine Schools. The separation occurred in December [of 2011].”2

Another audience member asked:

Question (22:25-23:30): “Do you know if Missouri is the only problem area for Imagine? [Inaudible]

David Brain: We have been through a basically now thorough review and underwriting of the entire portfolio. All these schools score, as you may or may not know, with a federal and state grading. Every school since Bush No Child Left Behind takes tests, gets an aggregate test score, and as your kinda federal grade under NCLB, what’s called AYP, or acceptable yearly progress grade. And then further, each state scores schools as well. We believe Missouri is very particular. It’s not to say Imagine has some issues of performance maybe in Ohio or in Florida, some of which are in our portfolio. Remember, we’re only – of Imagine’s total portfolio, we’re about one third of their landlord position, two thirds are outside of us. So we know there are some issues, but we don’t think there’s any systematic issue of the nature that St. Louis has demonstrated in the Imagine portfolio.

Below are two tables showing AYP results and state accountability results for the Imagine Schools in EPT’s portfolio. It’s worth noting that these accountability measures are not all that great and may in fact stack the deck against Imagine (and many other schools). I’m re-posting these tables mostly because David Brain mentions these measures in his presentation and these measures can be used, for better or worse, in important decisions (like revoking a charter).

More importantly, Brain only mentions academic indicators for the schools in EPT’s portfolio. While academics played a role in Imagine’s closure in St. Louis, financial management issues were also cited as a reason for closing the schools. Are other Imagine-run schools in debt and depositing funds in excess of FDIC insured amounts3? Brain doesn’t address those concerns.

Today, the Wall Street Journal covered the situation in St. Louis:

The turn of events has revived concerns among investors that Entertainment Properties is veering too far from what it does best: build and acquire movie theaters.

“I think the street is going to be a little hard on the stock” until the company resolves the issues with Imagine, said Rich Moore, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

Will Imagine and EPT swap the Missouri facilities for facilities in other states? Will EPT sell the facilities? If EPT keeps the facilities, can they find another tenant willing to dedicate such a large share of their expenses to facilities? Much remains to be resolved in Missouri and elsewhere.

  1. I removed “ums” and other utterances for clarity.
  2. Personal communication, July June 19, 2012.
  3. See pages 16 and 21 here, respectively
 June 26, 2012  Posted by on June 26, 2012 1 Response »
May 222012

In an earlier post, I looked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation education spending from 2008-2010. This post will focus exclusively on the foundation’s education work in Washington state from 2008-2010. I’m using the data from B&MGF Spending, 2008-2010.xlsx.

Below is an overview of the grants from the foundation for the years 2008-2010. The first table shows the number of grants for each category. The second table shows spending for each category1.

A few observations:

  • There is zero charter school spending because WA doesn’t allow charter schools; that may change.
  • About a third of all grants fall into the Other category. More about that below.
  • About a third of all grants fall into the Early Learning category.

Here is a sample of Other grants for the years 2008-2010:

  • $22,816 in 2008 to the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle to support an after-school education program.
  • $40,000 in 2008 to the Vietnamese Friendship Association of Seattle to support low-income immigrant Vietnamese students and parents in order to improve academic performance.
  • $150,000 in 2008 to Youth Care to support educational and workforce programs for homeless and other at-risk youth.
  • $47,400 in 2009 to the College Success Foundation to support academic mentors for foster children.
  • $490,000 in 2009 to Neighborhood House to support a school-centered program aimed at providing social services to children with behavioral challenges.
  • $172,000 in 2009 to the Technology Access Foundation to support a writing, math and technology program for children.
  • $100,000 in 2009 to Evergreen State College to support academic success for tribal members.
  • $140,000 in 2010 to the Children and Youth Justice Center to support truancy prevention programs.
  • $150,000 in 2010 to Renton Area Youth Family Service to support youth in Renton who are at high risk of dropping out.
  • $150,000 in 2010 to Team Read to support struggling elementary school readers, bringing them up to grade level in reading.

The Other category contains a good number of grants that would probably be considered wrap-around services. The foundation doesn’t give out a lot of those type of grants in other places.

The heavy emphasis on early learning in Washington state is remarkably different than the foundation’s strategy as a whole. Early Learning accounts for approximately half of all non-private school spending by the foundation in Washington, yet only 3-5% of spending by the foundation as a whole is dedicated to early learning – and most of that 3-5% is in Washington! Only 16 of the 83 early learning grants made by the foundation between 2008 and 2010 went to organizations outside of Washington.

The fact that the foundation is headquartered in the state likely explains at least some of the difference in grantmaking. Maybe the foundation saw a significant need and opportunity to improve early learning. Funding the smaller, local organizations is probably a result of the foundation feeling compelled to help out local nonprofits and organizations, and/or a familiarity with local issues that need to be addressed. Whatever the reasons, the foundation disperses funds very differently in Washington state.

  1. Note that the totals in table 1 do not equal the sum of grants listed because some grants fall into multiple categories. In the second table, I weighted the funding for grants that fall into multiple categories. For instance, an early learning advocacy grant of $100k would show up as a $50k grant in early learning and $50k in advocacy. I also included the Total w/o Private Schools because a single grant of $30 million in 2008 to the Lakeside School accounts for almost half of all spending from the year.
 May 22, 2012  Posted by on May 22, 2012 1 Response »
May 202012

In an earlier post, I tried to get a handle on Imagine’s spending on facilities.

Six Imagine-run schools utilizing facilities owned by EPT in St. Louis will close at the end of the school year. I was interested in seeing how EPT would address this in their first quarter report for 2012. The 10-Q is available here and the recent conference call is available here.

Below is what EPT had to say about Imagine and the closure of schools in their 10-Q:

Subsequent to March 31, 2012, the Missouri Board of Education voted to close five of the public charter schools located in St. Louis, which are owned by us and operated by Imagine, due to academic underperformance. Additionally, a public charter school owned by us and operated by Imagine located in Marietta, Georgia was closed this past year and we expect one located in Mableton, Georgia and two located in Kansas City, Missouri to close at the end of this school year. We have assessed the impact of these closings on our investment in a direct financing lease with Imagine and have determined that no impairments exist and that these events are not expected to impact our ability to collect payments from Imagine under their master lease with us. This assessment considered the cross-default nature of the master lease, the ability of Imagine per the terms of the master lease to exchange the closed properties for properties that are acceptable to us (i.e. unoccupied schools for occupied schools that are acceptable from an underwriting basis), the excess cashflow that Imagine generates at the parent level and our $16.4 million letter of credit from Imagine. Imagine is current on all payments under the master lease of 27 public charter schools at this time and we do not anticipate any delay in future payments.

The topic of Imagine dominated the conference call. Below is a transcription of EPT CEO David Brain discussing the issue:

Now in education, our charter public school portfolio will continue to perform well with the strong enrollment increase as we reported to you earlier for the ’11-’12 school year. As mentioned in our last call though, we do have a cloud in this otherwise sunny picture of performance. Due to a variety of factors including academic performance issues, it appears Imagine will lose a number of its charters for the coming school year. Greg has more on this, but I want to make the point that due to the financial strength of Imagine, the master lease structure of our investments, the potential for substitute properties with a large-scale operator, and our additional credit support in the form of a letter of credit, we do not expect this to interrupt or disrupt our rental income at all for the current or coming school years. Once again, it’s not an ideal set of circumstances, but it is encouraging to see that our portfolio is able, even with adversity, to perform acceptably. We have constructed our investments throughout our portfolios with multi-unit master lease and cross-default features to prevent some individual weak spots from affecting our income streams. Further, in this instance, we have substantial letter of credit support that can be called upon. I want to reaffirm that we do not expect any reduction in our rental revenue for our charter public school investments this year or in the immediate future. We may allow our client to substitute properties as contemplated in their arrangements, but this will only serve to improve our portfolio’s strength. We’ll keep you posted on these events if they take place.

Here is what COO Greg Silvers had to say about education:

With regard to our education portfolio, we continue to be very positive on the public charter school opportunity that has recently passed a significant milestone of enrollment in excess of two million students. However, we were disappointed that Imagine’s poor performance has jeopardized their charter status in nine of our locations. The total exposure is approximately $78 million of carrying value, however we have already started the process of swapping certain schools for performing assets. Given that these assets represent approximately 10% of Imagine’s total school portfolio, Imagine has the capacity and cashflow to service the assets until they transition to a new charter or new operator. As a result of Imagine’s positive cashflow, their ability to substitute properties or operators as well as the credit support features of our transaction, including the master lease structure and letter of credit, we do not anticipate any financial impact from this situation. The facilities involved are quality educational buildings and we’re actively working to substitute other quality collateral with Imagine or substitute other operators to put these assets into use. Given that these closures were brought about by academic rather than financial performance, we have taken steps to strengthen and increase our evaluation and monitoring of academic performance. We continue to believe that public charter schools that deliver a quality academic experience and operate in a financially responsible manner are very solid investments for EPR with attractive risk-adjusted yields. As I indicated previously, we continue to look for ways to increase both the geographic and operator diversity and this quarters investments, which I’ll detail in a minute, continue on this path.

To summarize, EPT isn’t too bothered by the closings because the closing schools can be swapped for other schools run by Imagine as part of the master lease, Imagine can continue paying for the facilities if a school doesn’t occupy the building, or another operator can be found. According to the comments from EPT, Imagine’s income at the parent (i.e. management organization) level combined with a line of credit assuages any worries about the closings and Imagine’s ability to make future payments.

EPT took calls from investors after the half hour presentation. Nearly every call-in asked about Imagine. I’ve transcribed one brief back-and-forth between Conor Fennerty of Goldman Sachs and EPT’s COO Greg Silvers. It’s worth listening to the entire Q&A session, but I’ve chose to look at these three questions from Fennerty since they touch on the main issues. The conversation below begins at the 31:15 mark and ends at approximately the 34:45 mark:

Conor Fennerty

I guess coming back to the charter school, you know, what gives you guys comfort that these problems are confined to these kind of select, I think you mentioned 9 or 10 schools?

Greg Silvers

Well I think the issue, I think, Conor, you know, and I- I-…  As we’ve said, I think part of the issue is specifically to academics. I think you, when you see, if you follow what’s going on in St. Louis, the issue is not the financial capacity of the schools. The schools, as David said, actually grew in enrollment. We went, we had actually a close to 10% enrollment growth in St. Louis last year. So we have demand for the charter school space. What we have is this operator in this scenario with these principals and these teachers who are not delivering the academic quality that they need to be whereas if you, we can look at the rest of our schools and see that academic progress, they’re not similarly situated. So we do not think this is across the board a systemic problem, but it is more that we can identify it with specific schools.


Okay, but isn’t that a little worrisome that, you know, in theory one of the best operators is having academic issues? ‘Cause isn’t that the kind of core, kind of crux of the argument behind charter schools?


I think if, this is the point we would make, and we can talk about this as much as you want, is when, what we would agree with you is that Imagine is clearly probably the, has the best balance sheet in the space. However, we have, we have… come to understand that they need to have, do some work on their academics. And therefore, you know, we have increased our underwriting and our focus on that to validate those processes as we acquire new assets and you see when we introduce BASIS and some of the other operators the quality academic performance that they have. So when we defined Imagine as one of the better operators, when we came into this space, Conor, we came in with what we thought was a beachhead operator who had a strong balance sheet that can provide across the (?) portfolio and had a substantial as I said cashflow to withstand any sort of issues. That’s proven to be true. Now have they expanded potentially a little too fast and got into some things that stretched their resources and they need to improve that? No doubt. Have we learned as part of the process that we needed to refine our underwriting and do a better job on academic evaluations? No doubt. But I think, again, as we structured the deal, everything continues to work, we do not think we’re gonna have any hiccups in our financial payment responsibility from Imagine and that we will go forward and continue to be very positive on the category.


Okay. And not to beat a dead horse, but just, you mentioned kind of strengthening your academic controls, your academic underwriting, I mean is that looking at the operator’s kind of national performance or how can you kind of get comfortable at the local level or is it more getting comfortable with the operator?


It’s all of the above what you said. It’s looking at their national performance, it’s actually evaluating their local board and seeing if they have the right people on their board to have an academic focus and do they have the right sort of individuals from a governance perspective who not only focus on the business side of it but also focus on the academic side of it. So we’ve got some best practices that have, that we’ve been part of, being shared by us by the national charter alliance that we’re trying to make sure we find those in all of our developments. (End transcription)

I’m going to focus on two issues that come up during the presentations by Brain and Silvers, the 10-Q, and Q&A exchange between Fennerty and Silvers:

  • Why did the St. Louis schools close? and
  • Is the closure of the St. Louis schools indicative of larger issues?

These two issues come up multiple times during the conference call and deserve a bit more attention.

Why did the St. Louis schools close?

Different people are saying different things about why the St. Louis schools will be closed at the end of the year.

Here is what COO Greg Silvers says about the closures (emphasis mine):

Given that these closures were brought about by academic rather than financial performance, we have taken steps to strengthen and increase our evaluation and monitoring of academic performance.

Here is what CEO David Brain says during his introduction (emphasis mine):

Due to a variety of factors including academic performance issues, it appears Imagine will lose a number of its charters for the coming school year.

Here is how EPT describes the St. Louis closures in their 10-Q (emphasis mine):

Subsequent to March 31, 2012, the Missouri Board of Education voted to close five of the public charter schools located in St. Louis, which are owned by us and operated by Imagine, due to academic underperformance.

Brain suggests a “variety of factors including academic performance” contributed to the closure, but the comments from Silvers and the 10-Q suggest it was simply a matter of academic performance.

Yet the suggestion that this was simply a matter of academic achievement runs counter to statements from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. DESE looked at three of the St. Louis charter schools1 and suggested revoking the charter at the end of the year. Among the reasons offered:

Not only have the three charter LEAs operated with deficit budgets, the schools have been questionable stewards of Missouri tax dollars. A comparison of costs for instructional and administrative functions with the state average, finds that the three charter LEAs spend significantly less on instruction and significantly more on administrative functions than those charter schools in Chart 17 below. Administrative costs statewide for LEAs are close to eight percent. For the three charter LEAs, administrative costs are close to 30 percent. Instructional costs statewide for LEAs are close to 52 percent. For the three charter LEAs, instructional costs are around 30 percent.

A comparison of instructional costs for the charter LEAs in St. Louis shows that the three Imagine charter LEAs are significantly below the other charter LEAs, as shown in Chart 18. A comparison of costs associated with building operations with other charter LEAs reflects high percentages for such services as well, as shown in Chart 19. (p. 18)

From the same report:

The three charter LEAs and their administration have failed to maintain sufficient fiscal control of the LEAs, leading to deficit spending over a number of years. These factors, along with a failure to respond to frequent audit findings, raise significant questions regarding to the future solvency of the Imagine charter schools. (p. 21)

This information wasn’t hidden in an obscure report to the State Board of Education. From a Missouri DESE press release:

This decision to close the three Imagine Academies is due to their ongoing poor academic performance and fiscal management.

And from the Missouri Charter Public School Association (also posted in the St. Louis Beacon):

The reasons given for closure of the Imagine schools were their ongoing poor academic performance and fiscal management. In September the Missouri Charter Public School Association called attention to these areas, questioning whether perhaps they were related to issues with the management company, Imagine Schools, and not the staff within the schools.

Why did EPT’s leadership focus on the academic struggles and only make a possible reference to something related to financial management issues? My hunch is that EPT’s leadership focuses almost exclusively on enrollment numbers (which are tied to revenues) and the occupancy levels of a school as measures of financial success. They want schools that are full with lots of students. Growth is good. This makes sense, at least to a point, but it neglects to look at the issues being raised by DESE – the very kinds of issues that can lead to an authorizer revoking a charter.

Is the closure of the St. Louis schools indicative of larger issues?

A few investors asked if the St. Louis situation was indicative of bigger problems for Imagine. Here is part of Silvers’ response to Fennerty’s query (see above):

What we have is this operator in this scenario with these principals and these teachers who are not delivering the academic quality that they need to be whereas if you, we can look at the rest of our schools and see that academic progress, they’re not similarly situated. So we do not think this is across the board a systemic problem, but it is more that we can identify it with specific schools.

A few investors asked about this very issue: is there concern about Imagine’s academics performance? EPT’s leadership didn’t present any evidence about the academic achievement at other schools, only said it wasn’t a systematic problem. The fact that this question came up a few times makes me wonder if investors are not aware of the publicly-available metrics used to evaluate schools.

There are generally two main measures of school quality, albeit not very good ones: AYP and various state systems. I pulled together AYP and state measures (where I could find them) for the EPT portfolio of Imagine-run schools2:

[EPT’s portfolio includes 27 schools total. I excluded MO schools since they are closing at the end of the school year.]

Keep in mind that these accountability systems are pretty crude and often are biased against schools serving a high percentage of struggling students. Just want to be clear here: I’m not suggesting these are good measures of a quality education, just suggesting these are measures that, fortunately or unfortunately, are used to evaluate the quality of a school. And these measures are often used to inform issues like whether or not a charter is renewed.

Just a few days after EPT released first quarter results, an education reform organization in favor of expanding charter schools, The Mind Trustcalled for the closure of three Imagine-run schools in Indiana. EPT owns all three of those schools.

presentation from March of 2012 posted on the company’s website indicates education investments (i.e. charter schools) comprise approximately 10% of EPT’s portfolio. Revenue from Imagine totaled over $7 million, or 9% of EPT’s total revenue, for the first three months of 2012. Imagine was the third largest source of revenue for EPT during these three months3.

In the conference call, ETP suggested that 3-7 facilities currently owned by Imagine could be traded for the Missouri facilities. Maybe EPT and Imagine can swap facilities and continue rolling along. But what happens if more of those charters are forced to close? Will Imagine and EPT be able to find enough suitable properties? EPT sure seems confident that things will look good in the future, or as Silvers put it, EPT remains “very positive on the category.”

  1. State Board of Education Review of Charters: Imagine Academy of Academic Success, Imagine Academy of Careers, and Imagine Academy of Environmental Science. April 2012.
  2. All AYP and state evaluations are available through state education websites. Miron & Urschel’s profiles of for-profit management organizations for the years ending in 2011 and 2010 also list both AYP and state evaluation status.
  3. See page 25 of the May 1, 2012 supplemental
 May 20, 2012  Posted by on May 20, 2012 6 Responses »
May 172012

Most education advocacy organizations post a list of board members on their website. For example, Education Reform Now, Stand for Children, 50CAN, Fairtest, Democrats for Education Reform, and the Alliance for School Choice all make information about board members available on their website.

StudentsFirst does not make this information available on their website. However, the IRS applications for StudentsFirst Institute (501c3) and StudentsFirst (501c4) list the following board members1:

  • Michelle Rhee – President
  • David Coleman – Treasurer
  • Ann-Margaret Michael – Secretary
  • Jason Zimba – Director

Coleman, Michael, and Zimba all work for Student Achievement Partners. And yes, that’s the David Coleman from the Common Core State Standards (nice profile from Dana Goldstein here). Zimba was involved in the writing of the math standards for CCSS. Michael is the operations manager for SAP and Coleman’s assistant.

I’m not pointing this out to suggest a conspiracy is afoot. But it’s strange that such a high-profile reformer with a serious budget couldn’t put together a more diverse board from the get-go. And why no disclosure on the website?

Update (5/19/12): A tweet from Coleman’s newly-created Twitter account: “@studentsfirsthq @rweingarten I told Students First months ago that my service on Board would end; was told new Board to be named in June”

  1. IRS applications are available via the NY Charities Website.
 May 17, 2012  Posted by on May 17, 2012 8 Responses »
May 162012

This post is about a for-profit charter management organization, Imagine Schools, and real estate/facilities. I’m using the dataset ImagineSchools posted here.

Imagine is one of the largest charter operators in the country. The company currently operates 70-something schools.

A common challenge for charter schools is access to facilities. Some districts give charters access to entire schools, some allow district schools and charter schools to operate out of the same building (“co-location”), and some charters secure facilities through non-profit or for-profit organization in the private sector.

To the best of my knowledge, Imagine does not have any schools in district facilities. Instead, Imagine either owns the schools through the company’s real estate arm, SchoolHouse Finance, LLC, or partners with one of two real estate investment trusts (“REITs”), Entertainment Properties Trust and Inland Public Properties Development. As of right now, EPT owns 27 facilities used by Imagine and IPPD owns seven facilities used by Imagine.

To gather financial information I collected data from IRS 990 forms for the years 2008 through 20101. I pulled the following information:

  • Total revenue
  • Total expenditures
  • Total assets
  • Total liabilities
  • Balance at end of year
  • “Rent”: an explicit mention of how much was sent to SchoolHouse Finance (or others) for the use of facilities. Few charters report this figure on their IRS 990s, although it is more common in the past few years.
  • “Occupancy”: Most IRS 990s list an occupancy figure, which could be the same or different from the amount sent to SchoolHouse Finance (or others) for rent. In the few cases where I could find both Rent and Occupancy figures, the amounts were nearly identical.
  • “Management fees”: an explicit mention of how much was sent to Imagine Schools for management.
  • “Management”: Most IRS 990s list a management figure, which could be the same or different from the amount sent to Imagine for management fees. In cases where I could find both Management Fees and Management figures, the amounts were generally close, although Management figures were often a bit higher than the amount sent to Imagine.
  • I also noted the charter’s EIN, state, owner of the facility, and whether or not the charter was a subsidiary of Imagine.

Just to be clear, this is not a full picture of Imagine’s finances. I should repeat that sentence just to be extremely clear. Because of the structure of Imagine2, I wasn’t able to gather financial information on roughly half of the schools. Gathering information from other sources (e.g. audits) would be possible and potentially something I’ll try in the future. Despite the qualifiers above, the limited information does provide at least some indication of Imagine’s use of resources.

Quite a few of the schools dedicate 20% or more of expenditures to facilities. The table below displays the percentage of expenditures dedicated to occupancy for the years 2008-2010:

[Note: two schools, Hope Community Charter School – Tolson and Hope Community Charter School – Lamond are operated by the same nonprofit and file their IRS 990 form jointly. Since their enrollment figures are roughly equal, I divided the totals for assets, revenue, occupancy, etc. in half for each school.]

For a comparison, the Center for Reinventing Public Education‘s Report on Interim Findings for the National Study of CMO Effectiveness found that “facilities accounted for an average of 12 percent of operational costs in the 2008-2009 school year”3 for the CMOs in the NewSchool Venture Fund’s portfolio (generally considered strong CMOs). I should caution here that NSVF CMOs may be better resourced and may be able to dedicate a smaller percentage of resources while obtaining similar quality (or better) facilities. Local variance (district policies, state policies, etc.) may also play a role.

Three reports from state-level charter advocacy organizations mention average expenditure rates on facilities of 7.5% (Colorado), 11% (Georgia), and 9% (Texas)4. A report from Cynthia Searcy and Robert Bifulco indicates charters in Buffalo, NY and Albany, NY spend between 11% and 15% on facilities. Interviewed about Imagine’s use of facilities, the finance coordinator for charters at one of Imagine’s authorizers, Ball State University, suggested 15% is a national benchmark.

Spending 20% or more seems to put Imagine at the higher end of spending on facilities when compared to non-profit management organizations and other charter schools, and is certainly higher than the rates cited by three states where Imagine operates schools or plans to do so in the near future (Colorado and Georgia, and Texas, respectively).

Why does this matter?

Six Imagine-run schools in Missouri are scheduled to close at the end of this year. Like many of the schools above, the Missouri charters allocate 20% or more of their budget to facilities5. While the EPT-owned facilities used by Imagine may be of high quality, the facilities are very much a source of profit. What will happen with the Missouri facilities now that Imagine is no longer the operator? Can EPT find tenants willing to dedicate 20% of operating expenses to facilities? I’ll address these questions in a post later this week.

  1. All forms available through or Foundation Center’s 990 finder.
  2. A good number of the schools operate under the umbrella of Imagine. Additionally, Imagine has both a for-profit arm and non-profit arm (as described on the penultimate page of their 2011 Annual Report). However, Imagine’s non-profit does not file IRS 990s as the organization does not have 501c3 status.
  3. See page 56 here. I am assuming educational costs as defined by CRPE can be fairly compared to total expenditures reported on IRS 990s.
  4. While these three reports look at facilities expenditures as a percentage of operating expenses, operating revenue, and program revenue, respectively, the percentages are unlikely to be much different if using expenses or revenue or vice versa.
  5. See page 20 here
 May 16, 2012  Posted by on May 16, 2012 3 Responses »
May 022012

How much do major publishers and testing companies spend on lobbying? I don’t currently have the time to sift through every state lobbying database, but looking at states that are likely to be major targets is a reasonable starting point.

Here is an overview of Pearson and McGraw-Hill spending on lobbying in four states during 2009, 2010 and 2011:

[Data come from Pearson and McGraw-Hill Lobbying, also available on the data page.]

A few notes:

  • I’m not 100% sure the Florida count is accurate. Florida reports lobbying to both the legislative and executive branches. I added the legislative lobbying to executive lobbying to come up with a total lobbying amount. It’s possible that I double-counted the Florida spending (I’ll post an update when I nail this down.)
  • A few states report lobbying by range (e.g. $0.00 – $9,999, $10,000 – $24,999). To remedy this, I took the mean of the upper end and lower end. The difference between the mean and lower and upper ends was minimal for California, Florida, and New York, but $50k – $60k in Texas.
  • The New York numbers seem low – maybe I missed something in the lobbying database, or maybe Pearson and McGraw-Hill really spend less on lobbying in New York.
  • It’s important to keep context in mind here. Are there other education-related organizations spending lots of money on lobbying? Yes. Are testing companies the biggest spenders? No, in general, although a quick look at a few places indicates they may be the big kids on the block in some years/states. For instance, in the weak union state of Texas, Pearson shelled out between $350,000 and $400,000 on one lobbyist alone in 2009. That’s close to the top end estimates of what the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas branch of the American Federation for Teachers each spent on lobbying during the same year.
  • These states certainly are not representative of the country. These are highly populated states. Lobbying amounts are far lower in most states.
 May 2, 2012  Posted by on May 2, 2012 4 Responses »