CharterFolk Contributor Mike McGregor – NVFF and the Spirit of Partnership: A Charter School Facilities Solution

Good day, CharterFolk.

Today we are pleased to present a Contributor Column from Mike McGregor, Chief Operating Officer at the Equitable Facilities Fund.

We provide a bio for Mike below.

Mike is a high school educator who caught the charter facilities bug somewhere along the way. He is the chief operating officer and a founding team member with the Equitable Facilities Fund (EFF), a national nonprofit with a mission to help high-performing public charter schools spend more on their students and less on their buildings. Since 2018, EFF has committed over $1.2 billion of affordable facility financing to schools serving 80,000 students across 21 states.

Mike previously served as the chief operating officer with the Great Oaks Foundation, where he led the CMO’s business operations as well as facilities procurement and fundraising efforts to support the Great Oaks network’s expansion in Connecticut, Delaware, Newark, and New York City. Earlier in his career, he served as a humanities teacher and leadership team member at Match High School in Boston.

Mike earned a BA in American History from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA with a concentration in finance and real estate from Columbia University. He serves as board treasurer with Kindle Education Public Charter School in Jersey City, and he co-founded the Education Finance Analyst Program, a collaborative effort between charter school support organizations to recruit and train early-career professionals to succeed in mission-driven finance roles.

NVFF and the Spirit of Partnership: A Charter School Facilities Solution

Anyone who has spent enough time in the sector has at least one facility story. From teachers making creative use of substandard space, to funders seeing grants made to support programming instead get consumed by building expenses, to the leader who pledged his own home as collateral to secure a home for his school, the “facilities problem” drains precious resources from public charter schools. It is a perpetual thorn in the side of operators, advocates, and families seeking access to better public education options.

One of my favorite things about the charter school movement is its belief that problems are meant to be solved – and we owe it to children to identify solutions. Last week, Alan Washington from CSDC gave CharterFolk readers an excellent primer on policy levers that support affordable facilities access. Today, I’m grateful to be able to share thoughts on potential solutions found in the spirit of partnership, something high on my mind after celebrating the launch of the Nevada Facilities Fund earlier this week.

First, some quick personal context. I started grappling with the facilities problem about a decade ago as an erstwhile history teacher charged with patching together financing to convert an abandoned warehouse to a 6-12 school, negotiating leases for hundreds of AmeriCorps members, and going on a years-long wild goose chase to find affordable space for a high school in Manhattan. These and other experiences motivated me to start baking ideas for systemic solutions. Before spending much time in the kitchen, in 2018 I had the good fortune of connecting with my now-boss Anand Kesavan, who was working on his own transformative idea with the nonprofit Equitable Facilities Fund (EFF).

EFF’s solution is not a novel one. Our model is inspired by the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program, an initiative that has deployed federal grants to catalyze over $150 billion of low-cost investments in clean water projects. State Revolving Funds provide financing to organizations and communities that typically borrow at higher interest rates due to perceived credit risk (sound familiar?). By pooling individual loans and grant proceeds, SRFs can provide municipal bond investors with low-risk investment opportunities and thus facilitate access to affordable capital for the aforementioned communities. Thanks to the generosity of funders such as the Walton family, EFF uses philanthropic grants to fuel a similar model for charter school facilities.

Since launching in 2018, EFF has invested $1.2 billion to scale educational excellence across 21 states. These loans will generate $275 million in savings — funds our school partners can re-purpose to better serve more than 80,000 students, over 70% of whom qualify as economically disadvantaged. We are especially committed to investing in schools led by leaders of color who, despite their critical importance to the students they serve and the education ecosystem writ large, continue to endure biases both within our sector and on the capital markets. By the end of the decade, EFF aims to lend a total of $3 billion and work alongside mission-oriented partners to exert market and policy influence so that facilities will no longer be a barrier to quality charter school growth.

EFF’s “regional facilities fund” model drives this vision forward by pairing the strength of our national lending platform with the dedication and expertise of local funders, advocates, and policymakers. We launched our first regional fund in late 2022 with nearly $25 million philanthropy pledged by seven Texas-based foundations. Over time, EFF will leverage this seed philanthropy ten times to administer the Texas Facilities Fund (TFF), a $250 million revolving loan fund for early-phase charters seeking to grow. TFF has already closed six loans for over $100 million, all with interest rates in the 4% range – compared to 7 to 8% or higher offered by other lenders. The fund’s initial round of lending will generate $50 million in facilities savings and support the creation of 10,000 high-quality charter seats.

Since its successful implementation in Texas, this model has caught the interest of stakeholders across the country who are searching for facilities solutions. In its early days, it was met with skepticism from sector partners who were justifiably wary of financial “innovations.” This was not the case with the indomitable Jana Wilcox Lavin of Opportunity 180 and her then-board chair Miles Dickson. Before the end of our first 30-minute conversation mid-2021, Jana and I agreed we needed to bring the model to Nevada. Our early exploration of the idea coincided with the auspicious announcement that the newly-formed State Infrastructure Bank would allocate $15 million for charter school capital projects. Over the next couple years, we worked with Treasurer Zach Conine and his team to structure a partnership that would serve as the basis for the Nevada Facilities Fund (NVFF), and in October, Governor Joe Lombardo approved a first-of-its-kind investment from the Infrastructure Bank.

On Wednesday evening, O180 and EFF hosted a convening in Las Vegas to celebrate NVFF’s launch. We were joined by over 100 school leaders, funders, policymakers, advocates, and supporters.  The program included powerful remarks from the Governor, Treasurer, Jana, and Anand, as well as a panel that EFF’s Shawn McCormack facilitated with the exceptional leaders of Beacon Prep, Futuro Academy, and Mariposa Academy. Speakers highlighted the unique blend of state funding, local and national philanthropy, and bond investments that will support over $100 million of charter school loans. These loans will generate millions in savings — dollars that will be re-invested to support programming and 7,500 seats. This staggering return on investment is attractive to our partners in Arkansas, Tennessee, DC, and New York, where we are raising funds to replicate the regional model.

Reflecting on Wednesday night, I was struck by the feeling of partnership in the room and inherent in the individuals, organizations, and relationships that have made NVFF possible. A Republican Governor and Democratic Treasurer not afraid to transcend party lines to do the right thing for children. The philanthropist with a steely determination to support better public education options. Jana, Miles, and an O180 team that will never stop working on behalf of Clark County’s families. Leaders of organizations such as BLACC, the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, and the National Charter Collaborative that move the needle every day in the fight for more equitable representation in school leadership. Representatives from the Walton Family Foundation and the City Fund, forward-thinking organizations willing to invest in bold ideas. My teammates at EFF who relentlessly pursue our North Star – a pathway to affordable facilities for all high-impact public charter schools. The true stars of the show: a dozen or so school leaders who have made it their lives’ work to give Nevada’s children the opportunities they deserve.

NVFF has harnessed the spirit of partnership to do greater things for students and schools. A similar spirit will fuel the launch of new regional funds in 2024 and 2025 thanks to an ever-growing network of partners, including the Stephens and Dillard families in Arkansas, City Bridge and Education Forward in DC, SCORE and the Joe C. Davis Foundation in Tennessee, Education Reform Now and the New York Charter Schools Association in NY, our national partners at the City Fund and the Walton Family Foundation, and numerous others who have committed time, financial resources, and expertise to bring facilities solutions to the aforementioned geographies. They do so knowing that we are strongest when we work together with an unrelenting focus on children’s futures – an understanding that I hope will serve as an anchor for our sector in the months and years to come.

CharterFolk Contributors Naomi Rubin DeVeaux and Dr. Jim Goenner – Bringing Our A-GAME to the “Next Practices” of Authorizing Excellence

Good day, CharterFolk.

Today we are pleased to share a Contributor Column from Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, Partner at the National Charter Schools Institute, and Dr. Jim Goenner, President and CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute.

We provide bios for Naomi and Jim below.

Dedicated to serving families through quality public school choice, throughout her career, Naomi Rubin DeVeaux seeks to publish transparent and actionable school performance information. She has held leadership positions in authorizing agencies, charter support organizations, served on school boards, and taught in public schools. Naomi is a partner with the National Charter Schools Institute, where she works in authorizing, school governance and academic oversight. Naomi previously served as the Deputy Director of the DC Public Charter School Board, where she developed an innovative suite of school evaluation tools. She was previously the Deputy Director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. She began her career in education as a high school English and literacy teacher at district and charter schools. She is vice chair of the DC Bilingual Public Charter School board and a two-term board member of Education Board Partners (formerly Charter Board Partners). She is a member of the Coalition of Learner Equity, a NACSA coach, a Pahara – Aspen education leader, and began her teaching career as a Fulbright scholar in Germany.

Dr. Jim Goenner is a champion for excellence and a member of the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame. He is on a mission to change the arc of education. Jim sees chartering as a powerful strategy for challenging the givens and an opportunity to create the conditions where innovation and excellence can thrive.  Jim currently serves as the President & CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the charter schools movement and equipping schools, boards and authorizers with the ideas, tools and resources they need to win for kids.  Prior to joining the Institute, Jim led Central Michigan University’s chartering efforts, making CMU the nation’s first and largest university authorizer of charter public schools. Under his leadership, CMU became known as the “gold standard” for charter school authorizing, earning recognition from both the U.S. and Michigan Departments of Education.  As a movement builder, Jim helped found the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers. He also helped found and led the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which continues to serve as the unified voice of Michigan’s charter schools movement.  Jim has testified before numerous policymaking bodies, including the United States Congress, and was invited by the U.S. Department of Education to serve on the advisory board of the National Charter Schools Resource Center. He has received gubernatorial appointments from Michigan Governors John Engler and Jennifer Granholm. Jim presently serves on the board of the Charter Schools Development Corporation, which specializes in helping charter schools with facilities financing. And he serves as a Blue-Ribbon Panel Judge for the prestigious Yass Prize.  Jim earned his doctorate in educational administration from Michigan State University and is the proud father of seven children and two grandchildren.

Bringing Our A-GAME to the “Next Practices” of Authorizing Excellence

Since the dawn of chartering in the 1990s, policymakers, educators, and authorizers have been trying to find the right balance of innovation, flexibility, and accountability.

Ideal for soundbites and bumper stickers, these three buzzwords are constantly bandied about by CharterFolk – and for good reason.

But as with most soundbites, there is much more to the story. Determining exactly what innovation, flexibility, and accountability mean – especially when making high-stakes decisions – is a greater challenge in practice than it sounds in theoretical policy debates and conference presentations. And as early charter policy wonks will tell you, state laws give little direction to the hands-on work necessary to effectively implement them.

That’s why finding and upholding the right balance in practice has largely fallen on the shoulders of those who authorize and oversee charter public schools. Having played key leadership roles with two of the early leaders in authorizing – Central Michigan University and the DC Public Charter Schools Board – and the formation of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, we’ve witnessed firsthand the competing and conflicting pressures authorizers face. In short, it’s the fabulously paradoxical notion of “regulating freedom.”

Real schools – with real kids, families, teachers, and communities depending on them – require more definition and detail than a soundbite will ever provide. With real lives and real futures on the line, it’s only fair that all concerned know the process and substance of how and what they will be measured against. That’s why proactive and competent authorizing is essential.

The decisions authorizers make carry serious and lasting consequences. To wit:

  1. Deciding who gets to open a public school, enroll students, and, ergo, spend public money.
  2. Deciding who gets permission to grow and expand.
  3. Deciding who gets their charter renewed, and for how long.
  4. Deciding when to intervene, and when a school should be closed.

You’ll often hear authorizers discuss the profound responsibility inherent in their work. It’s true. Authorizing is a catalyst for improving education for kids and families and for creating the dynamics that make the educational ecosystem work better for all. State laws bestow authorizers with substantial power, including the power to oversee the board members and school leaders authorized to govern and run charter schools. The success of this relationship directly impacts the lives and futures of kids and the hopes and dreams of their families.

Three decades in, there still is no simple formula for making these decisions. Nor should there be. These are weighty matters that require considerable thought, deliberation, and professional judgement.

The good news is that there is a robust community of changemakers, called the A-GAME, that is thinking deeply about these matters and developing better solutions. Let us explain.

In 2017, our team at the National Charter Schools Institute teamed up with Jim Griffin and Dr. Jody Ernst of Momentum Strategy and Research to submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of Education for a Quality Charter School Programs (CSP) National Dissemination Grant. To our delight, our proposal was funded, and we launched the A-GAME Community of Changemakers with 15 authorizers who were willing to challenge conventional thinking and focus on measuring the things that truly matter.

Our first goal was to create a valid and reliable accountability model for alternative education campuses. We knew the conventional one-size-fits-all model relied too heavily on standardized test scores and graduation rates. We were concerned that when the rubber-meets-the-road, those metrics were going to have a disparate impact on the non-traditional (and often older) students being reengaged by these schools.

After the global pandemic, others became more interested in holistic and responsive approaches to measuring school quality that considered the whole child. In 2022, we applied and received another CSP grant, this time joining forces with Dr. Aimee Evan at WestEd, bringing her research on the importance of early intervention to prevent school closure. Today, A-GAME is a diverse and growing Community of Changemakers involving schools, boards, authorizers, associations, facility financiers and more.

Typical of CharterFolk, there are lots of different opinions and perspectives, but we are united on purpose. And that purpose is pushing beyond the one-size-fits-all mindsets and finding ways to measure what  truly matters – including  student engagement, learning and well-being. We believe all kids deserve access to the kinds of schools that best meets their needs. We do not believe we can regulate our way to excellence. Or that closure should be the only strategy for dealing with underperforming schools.

Working together, we believe the next generation of practices will better balance and respect the dual nature of charter accountability: (1) to a marketplace, where parents have diverse educational options for their kids, and (2) to the requirements of being a public entity worthy of taxpayer funding.

If this is the type of real and meaningful conversation you’ve been longing for, consider yourself invited to our 3rd Annual A-GAME Convening taking place in Chicago, May 2-3, 2024. (Info and registration here 2024 Winter & Spring A-GAME Convenings – National Charter Schools Institute).

This will not be your usual conference with pithy panels and slick presentations about the latest headlines. It will be dynamic, thought provoking and yes, purposefully disruptive.

This is good. These are hard ideas that need to be rassled with. Both intended and unintended consequences need to be thought through.

The outcome should be “next practices” – future looking to what we need to start doing. They’re not “best practices,” a term that suggests we figured it out and will keep doing tomorrow what worked nicely yesterday.

There is so much more to imagine, learn, and invent in our mutual quest to support student learning and measure mission and impact, without giving ground on the need for rigorous accountability. And yes, closing schools when necessary.

That’s why we are encouraging everyone to get on their A-GAME. Be proactive, take responsibility, and help schools succeed for kids, rather than being reactive, wringing our hands, and watching schools suffer through the death spiral.

We understand it’s safer and easier to simply compare standardized test scores and apply one-size-fits-all frameworks. That’s what the status quo does. But that’s the wrong thing to do for students, families, and educators looking for schools that are different by design. And it doesn’t align with the vision and spirit of CharterFolk. It’s the cheap way out.

We can revert to…bureaucracy. We’ve got a built-in excuse with the seemingly never ending “regulatory creep” coming from the federal and state levels, which is burdening and distracting schools, boards, and authorizers from the real work of educating kids. But we’re CharterFolk and we don’t make excuses. We make change.

Determining and implementing the right blend of market forces and public stewardship will not be easy. But like JFK said when challenging the U.S. to get to the moon, we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Let’s go CharterFolk. It’s time to get back to our roots, challenge conventional thinking and create new solutions that will allow us to fulfill our promises to students, families, educators, and taxpayers. And avoid becoming like the very system we were created to be an alternative to.

Naomi Rubin DeVeaux is a Partner and Jim Goenner is the President & CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute.