The New Schools Network describes itself as an independent charity and its website gives the impression that the organization gives impartial advice to anyone wishing to set up a Free School. But it is difficult to see the Network as anything more than a Conservative party-driven lobbying organisation specifically set up to promote the supposed benefits of Free Schools. It was awarded a £500,000 grant by the DfE, who did not invite any other organisation to bid for the work. The Network is run by Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Gove when the Conservatives were in opposition. The grant was awarded shortly after an email from Dominic Cummings, another Gove adviser who subsequently went on to work for the Network as a consultant, called for: "MG telling the civil servants to find a way to give NSN cash without delay." Mystery surrounds its other sources of funding because it refuses to reveal the names of anonymous donors.
Rachel Wolf has been supporting Michael Gove’s zeal in disseminating the uncritical hype of the miraculous achievements of New York City Charter Schools. But as we already revealed here
, Rachel’s oft-repeated claim that New York has closed the achievement gap between rich and poor (The “Scarsdale-Harlem Effect”) is based on a 2009 study by Caroline Hoxby, which is fundamentally flawed, unreliable, incomplete and which overstates the cumulative effect of attending a charter. The DfE website, announcing more Free Schools, repeats this highly dubious claim under point 8 of its "Notes to Editors"
Neither the 2009 Hoxby report nor a 2010 CREDO study on New York City charters examine why some charters are phenomenally successful and others have failed. Neither do they explain how some charter schools are better resourced in relation to other charters and to regular public schools.
A 2010 National Education Policy Center (NEPC) report called “Adding Up The Spending: Fiscal Disparities and Philanthropy Among New York City Charter Schools” by Bruce Baker and Richard Ferris of Rutgers University goes some way to provide answers to these questions. Rachel Wolf and the NSN do not disclose this report on their website, possibly because it highlights the startling inequalities that American school reform has wreaked on education and because this would draw obvious and deeply uncomfortable comparisons with Gove’s policies in Britain.
First - the report found that about half of NYC’s charters are given publicly owned premises by the city’s Board of Education (BOE). This places half of the city’s charters in a much better financial situation than the other half, receiving on average $2,200 more per pupil.
Second - the study also found that charter schools not housed in BOE facilities receive $517 less in public funding than do non-charters. So, even before private donations are counted, the one half of NYC charters with BOE premises have substantially more money available compared with NYC regular public school.
Third - outcomes vary widely. Both high spending and low-spending charters perform well, whilst others perform quite poorly.
Fourth - NYC charters serve on average far fewer students classified as English Learners or who are very poor. Both groups of students require more resources to teach, meaning that charters with lower admissions of these more resource-intensive students can devote their funding to other purposes.
Fifth – Spending in NYC charters varies widely and those differences in spending per pupil appear to be driven primarily by differences in access to private donors. The most well-endowed charters receive additional private funds exceeding $10,000 per pupil more than traditional schools receive.
The Rutgers University report finds that New York charters do not on average outperform regular public schools, that the quality and financial resources of charters can differ wildly and that well endowed charters do not necessarily generate better results than some public schools or less well endowed charters.
Bruce Baker’s NEPC research wonders whether the NYC context can be transferrable to other settings in the United States or beyond as a policy option since the NYC context is totally unique in terms of the role played by philanthropy and so-called venture philanthropy. The massive amounts of additional philanthropic resources may explain a great deal of the claimed success of some NYC charter schools and, if this is the case, then attempts to copy or scale up these supposed successes would be more difficult and costly than assumed.
Neither Gove nor Wolf have ever explained how New York’s unique context can be replicated in Britain, especially as the Free School/Academy policy was launched at a time of swingeing public service cuts in a country where private and corporate philanthropy has been extremely modest in comparison with America, where especially New York philanthropy can be staggeringly generous.
It is extremely puzzling why Gove and Wolf never mention the impact that generous city, state and philanthropic funds may have on charter school performance especially since one of the New Schools Network advisers is James Merrimen, who is CEO of the New York City Charter School Center and who previously worked for the Walton Family Foundation where he helped develop and implement the foundation’s grant making in the charter school sector. In 2008, the Walton Foundation provided an additional $460,000 to Achievement First network, $5.2m to the KIPP organization and smaller grants of $50,000 directly to Harlem Link Academy and Girls Preparatory.
So will the New York model be replicated here by replacing the influence of the major US philanthropists headed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation with the financial generosity of education chains such as ARK, who raise charitable contributions from the hedge fund industry? And does this mean that, as in America, Britain’s wealthy and influential can use their financial generosity to influence and dictate the educational agenda of Britain?
Research has shown that American Charter Schools cannot claim the huge success in transforming primary and secondary school education that their supporters claim them to have done. Despite the billions of federal, state and philanthropic dollars thrown at them, research shows that just as there are high performing charters, so there are many unsuccessful ones. So why are the coalition and its think tank, The New Schools Network, ignoring the warning signs from America and pumping the depleted schools budget into creating more Academies and Free Schools? Why have they been less than transparent about the failures of the Charter system and about how the only guaranteed beneficiaries of Charters are not the children they admit but the companies or charities that run them?
Why is the New Schools Network misrepresenting the context of New York City Charters by repeating the myth of the Scarsdale-Harlem effect? Why does it not openly acknowledge that New York’s enormous wealth and the philanthropic advantages open to some New York charters make the context unique and unlikely to be replicated in Britain? And why does it repeat that American charters in general and New York ones specifically improve education for the poor when credible studies show that they make little difference compared to public schools? New York is more racially and socio-economically diverse, thus creating more opportunity for cherry-picking, segregation and neighbourhood selection.
What in fact the government could learn from the NYC example is that the huge variations of funding and attainment between charters as well as between charters and public schools could be narrowed by the city officials making available facility, operational and funding resources more equitable across the board to all charters and public schools. This would make assessment of each school’s success much fairer, lessen the perception that Charters are delivering better results and increase the chances of every school to provide good education. Sadly, it appears that both the NSN and the DfE are now engaged in an experiment in Britain to replicate only the mistakes and divisions of the US model. And Michael Gove ought to explain how US levels of philanthropic aid are going to be raised here to match the ambitious programme of Academy and Free School expansion, if they are not coming out of the public purse.
This lack of transparency by the Secretary of State for Education and the New Schools Network is old news. Dominic Cummings, a Gove adviser and former consultant to New Schools Network, told civil servants that “MG telling the civil servants to find a way to give NSN cash without delay”. Sent after the election last May, his message goes on to say:
"Labour has handed hundreds of millions to leftie orgs – if u guys cant navigate this thro the bureauc then not a chance of any new schools starting!!"
No other organisation was invited to bid for the work. Cummings went on to work for the charity on a freelance basis.
Furthermore, it appears that Cummings took measures to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of Gove’s free schools policy. He told a senior civil servant: “NSN [New Schools Network] is not giving out to you, the media or anybody else any figure on ‘expressions of interest’ [from people wishing to set up free schools] for PQs [parliamentary questions], FOIs [Freedom of Information requests] or anything else. Further, NSN has not, is not, and will never answer a single FOI request made to us concerning anything at all.”
Although David Bell, Permanent Secretary of the DfE, pointed out in a letter to Andy Burnham that there was nothing improper about the manner in which the NSN had been funded, the whole enterprise cannot escape the perception that it is an expensive PR agency promoting school reform – a job that can be done within the DfE.
Rachel Wolf and Natalie Evans, Chief Operating Office of New Schools Network, have not responded to requests to comment on this article.
Additional links: NEPC Report by Bruce Baker FISCAL DISPARITIES AND PHILANTHROPY AMONG NEW YORK CITY CHARTER SCHOOLS