The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Tuesday that it will give a $5.7-million grant to a charter school network to help it open six charter high schools in Los Angeles over the next five years.
The grant reflects a growing emphasis on size and scale in the charter movement. The grant’s recipient, Aspire Public Schools, is California’s best-financed and best-known representative of this trend.
Aspire is a not-for-profit network that manages seven small campuses serving mostly disadvantaged students in Northern California.
Having a network of schools allows Aspire to share curriculum, train and promote teachers within its system, and streamline costs.
In the past, Aspire chief executive Don Shalvey has talked of creating a statewide network of 100 schools over 15 years.
Tom Vander Ark, the foundation’s executive director of education, called the grant an endorsement not only of charter schools but of charter management organizations such as Aspire.
“We have a better chance of seeing a much higher quality of school when schools are part of a network. You get a proven model,” Vander Ark said.
In addition to the Aspire grant, the foundation announced a grant of $3 million to Envision Schools, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, to launch five high schools in the Bay Area.
“It doesn’t pay for all of our start-up costs, but it pays for the majority of them,” said Daniel McLaughlin, chief executive of Envision, which will open its first school this fall.
“Having the imprimatur of the Gates Foundation really tells other funds and school districts that we’re going to be able to deliver for kids,” he said.
Charters are public schools that are held exempt from some regulation to encourage innovation.
California has more than 430 charter schools, the second most in the nation after Arizona.
The amount of the gifts announced Tuesday is small for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, which was founded by Microsoft’s founder and his wife and has an endowment of $24 billion.
The foundation says it is the largest private funder of charter schools in the country. It has donated about $125 million to help launch about 190 charter schools as part of its mission of promoting smaller schools.
In recent years Aspire also has received grants to expand from the Broad Foundation, New School Ventures Fund and the Walton Family Foundation. But the organization still faces financial challenges.
Shalvey said Tuesday that public funds generally do not cover start-up costs for schools, estimated at $1,000 a student.
Philanthropy must make up the difference.
The long-term solution is the economies of scale that come from a bigger network; Shalvey says Aspire should be self-sustaining when it has 28 schools in its network.
Shalvey and Vander Ark said Aspire’s new schools could help ease campus overcrowding in Los Angeles, reduce the dropout rate and persuade more poor children to set their sights on college.
Although the Gates grant will fund six charter high schools, Aspire also plans to eventually built six primary schools in Los Angeles.
Most if not all would be in South Los Angeles.