A weekend interview with Darryl Cobb, leader of the Florida Charter School Growth Fund
Darryl Cobb, former chief learning officer for KIPP, is now leading the Florida effort for the Charter School Growth Fund, which has partnered with the Florida Department of Education to put money into "high quality" charter school startups in needy communities. The group announced its new $30 million project this week. Cobb spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the initiative.
I am really interested in this new charter fund you announced. I want to know more about where this idea came from, because we really hadn't heard much about this.
Sure. It was originally conceived back when the state put together their Race to the Top application. ... As a part of that they identified an opportunity to direct dollars to help serve the neediest students in Florida through a charter school solution. And out of that process the state created a request for proposals from organizations that would be interested in managing this fund and helping raise some of the matching funds that are part of it. We responded to that RFP from the state.
Okay. So your group works out of Colorado. Do you work with any other states or organizations to do this in any other places?
We have our core fund, which is a national fund. Charter schools from anywhere in the country can apply to that. We also have a similar state fund in the state of Tennessee. We partnered with them through their Race to the Top application and have a $30 million fund there, which has similar purposes - to create high performing charters in the highest need areas of their state.
So if you're a venture capital group, then, how do you make money off of this?
Yeah. I think that's a little bit of the oxymoron in our title. We are a philanthropic venture fund. So we're not in this to make money, to make a profit. We're providing a social return on investment to our invetment partners. So we operate as a non-profit.
So your investors, I have read that they include the Walton Foundation. Is that right?
What are some of the other ones?
Our core fund investors include the Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Kern Family Foundation and the Fischer Family Foundation, are the major gifts behind our work. There are other foundations that made other gifts also.
Then Florida's money comes from Race to the Top?
Florida's money will come from Race to the Top and then we're also going to be bringing an additional $10 million to bear, so that every $1 of private philanthropy will be matched by $2 of public philanthropy for a total of $30 million.
Okay. And all that money already exists in place? Or does it still have to be collected?
The private philanthropy people are still in the process of raising those funds now.
Are you looking to people in the state of Florida? Or just anywhere that people support charter schools and school choice?
We are looking in the state of Florida and we're also looking to some national funders who have an interest in the state of Florida.
What is the interest in the state of Florida? Why would you want to come here?
Sure. I think that there are a couple of things that made this a very attractive opportunity. First, I think it's very mission aligned with who we are. The state DOE specifically set criteria for high performing charter that are going to go into the neediest areas, the areas that are predominantly low-income and high-minority. That matches with the core work that we do across the country. I also think we saw an opportunity that while the Florida landscape already has many charters operating in it, this is a segment of the market that is very under-served. So the number of high performing schools targeted and focused, I should say the neediest communities as identified by the educational underperformance of their schools is a very open market here in Florida and we wanted to be part of the solution of helping to ensure that all students in Florida have access to a great education.
Why not put the money toward the public schools that are already in existence?
We are all about the improvement of the traditional public schools and the organizations that do that. Our focus is working with charter schools and helping the highest performing charter schools scale their impact to serve more students.
So there is a list of 104 schools in Florida that have been identified as high performing under the state law. Are those the schools that stand to get money or support or open the new schools that you are talking about?
Our criteria doesn't match exactly with what the state of Florida's criteria. What I would say is that we will look at the performance data associated with the track record of students in the organizations as they apply. So those could be organizations that currently exist here in Florida or they could be organizations that also may be looking to come to the state of Florida to serve students in the market that we are looking at. We actually have what we refer to as a blind process for evaluating the candidates. So as somebody applies we're not looking at the name of the organization. The first step in the process just looks at their academic achievement data across a number of different factors. Many of those line up with the Florida accountability system, but there are others that we look at than those which are in the Florida accountability system.
What about startups? They have no record of success or failure.
We don't work with brand new starts from the ground up. We will work with entrepreneurs who have a track record from another place. We have worked with people who are starting a new organization but they can point to a track record of student achievement from a prior principalship or a prior organization that they have led. ...
Are there certain neighborhoods or places that you are targeting? Didn't you say there are 30 startups you are looking at?
Yes. There are certain neighborhoods that we are targeting. We are looking to help start roughly 30 charter schools over the course of the five year program. That's where the 30 number comes from. We have a list from the state of the 71 schools that constitute the lowest 5 percent of performing schools across the state of Florida and we're targeting our schools to be placed in those neighborhoods.
How do you fit in? Are you going to be the president of this organization?
I am a partner and vice president of the growth fund. My regional territory includes the midwest and the southeast. ... This is a project that I am leading. Myself along with a team of folks are going to be present here in Florida ... roughly two to three times a month meeting with potential operators as well as conducting some of our fund raising activities.
Are there any people from Florida whose names we might recognize who are involved with this effort?
Only our partners through the state Department of Education.
Are you affiliated with that new charter school alliance they just started a couple of weeks ago?
No. We are a separate entity from the new charter school alliance. We are a national group that creates competitive funds to seed the growth of high performing charter schools. The alliance is an advocacy group. The state of Florida is our only formal partner in this work.
When will we see some activity besides the announcement that this exists? Will you be taking applications immediately? What's the next step?
We are taking applications immediately. If there is an organization that applies and meets our criteria, you could see a school open as early as next year, the fall of 2012.
So you're talking about groups that have already applied to the counties and are in the process.
Exactly. They may already have a charter application in process or approved. Then they apply to us to be part of a larger growth plan they have to open a number of schools. Our application is currently open on our website. ...
What do you say to people who are in the public school system who don't like charter schools, that they are sucking money away from what they are trying to do? How do you talk about charter schools to people who don't like them?
I actually talk about charter schools the same way to people whether they don't like them or whether they are charter supporters. Charter schools are public schools that are serving the needs of students who have chosen them as a place where they believe they can get the best education. I think many people will attack charter schools as something that exist only for a select portion of students. We look at charter schools as something that is going to provide a high quality education option to children who either may not have one otherwise or may choose that this is the option they want to attend.
Why can charter schools do these things and other schools just can't? ... All these things that you talk about -- becoming high performing excellent schools in these neighborhoods that are poorly served or underserved. I want to know why charter schools can get success out of these students where the other schools cannot.
I don't want to fall into a black and white argument. We are proponents of high quality schools. Our organization absolutely recognizes that there are high quality traditional schools just as there are high quality charter schools. And quite frankly, there are poore quality traditional public schools and there are poor quality charter schools. Our organization just happens to advocate for high quality charter schools and the expansion of those. But we believe in high quality schools regardless of their governance type.
Is there anything else about the effort you are putting forth that you think people in Florida would want to know that I didn't ask?
Yeah. Hopefully you got this from the conversation. We're really excited about this opportunity for a number of different reasons. But the primary and foremost reason we are excited is because this is about creating high quality options for the students who are some of the neediest students in the state. These are the students who often are not the beneficiaries when it comes to philanthropic dollars or even attention. ... So we are excited to operate in the neighborhoods of the neediest students across the state of Florida and provide high quality education options.