Behind the $35 Million Gift to Launch a Charter School in a Struggling City

Re-posted from a story in Inside Philanthropy

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation recently pledged $35 million to build and launch a charter school in Flint, Michigan. The K-8 school will eventually be located on the grounds of the Flint Cultural Center and enroll up to 650 students, who will have access to the institution's offerings, including the art and music museums, the public library and the planetarium.

It’s a large gift from a funder that doesn’t see itself as a backer of the charter movement. But the opportunity to help create the Flint Cultural Center Academy was too promising to pass up, said Neal Hegarty, the foundation’s vice president of programs.

“To be clear, the foundation isn’t supporting a charter school movement in Flint,” Hegarty said. “We’re supporting the development of a specific charter school that will enable students to benefit from the expertise and amenities available through the Cultural Center institutions. There’s nothing else like it in our region, and we think kids in Flint and Genesee County deserve to have that kind of unique learning opportunity.”

As we've reported, Mott is best known within K-12 circles for investing in after-school programs. It's been a pioneering leader in this space for decades, and remains a stalwart after-school funder. In turn, this work is part of a broader education portfolio that also includes youth engagement, which the foundation defines as supporting meaningful ways for kids to participate in school, communities and economies. The access students will have to the neighboring cultural institutions fits with that goal.

At first glance, $35 million seems like a large gift. And it is—it’s more than half the funds Mott has put into Flint’s education system since 2016—but it’s proportionate to the costs of building a school from the ground up, Hegarty said. The gift covers the price of designing, building and outfitting the school. The foundation wanted to cover the full cost, so that Flint’s cultural institutions wouldn’t have to find additional donors.

The school will join the city’s robust charter ecosystem. More than half of Flint’s students attend charter schools, according to numbers released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in 2017. At 55 percent in charter schools, Flint beat out neighboring Detroit for the highest percentage of students enrolled in charters. Nationally, the city is second only to New Orleans, which replaced its traditional public school district entirely with charter schools following Hurricane Katrina.

Hegarty attributes the high enrollment to a few factors, including state-level policies, family preference and fall-out from the water crisis. Despite the higher than usual charter enrollment, Mott doesn’t prioritize charters in its Flint-based education giving, he said.

“In Flint, the Mott Foundation is working to strengthen the entire education continuum—from cradle to college and career. We support educational opportunity in many different forms, including early childhood education, our public K-12 system, after-school programs, early and middle college, job training, and post-secondary education,” Hegarty said.

Since 2016, the foundation has poured about $60 million into Flint’s education system. About $22.4 million went to support Flint Community Schools, the city’s public school district.

Mott supports work across the country and internationally, but has also been one of Flint’s most stalwart local funders. The foundation has poured more than $1 billion into the city—about a third of the funder’s total giving—since Charles Mott, a co-founder of General Motors, started the giving operation in 1926.

Despite these investments, conditions in Flint mostly seem to have become worse in recent decades. The dynamic illustrates the limits of philanthropy when it comes to fighting entrenched poverty and structural forces. Flint owes its hardship to several system-level challenges. The city lost jobs to automation and overseas competition. At the same time, segregation and exclusionary zoning prevented African Americans from moving to the suburbs as the urban center collapsed, trapping them in the city. The 2009 financial crisis exacerbated the city’s decline.

Flint's deep troubles were epitomized by the highly visible water crisis that unfolded in 2015. Despite strong reservations about stepping in to shore up a failing public system, Mott was one of the foundations to respond to the crisis, along with Carnegie, Ford, Kresge, Robert Wood Johnson and W.K. Kellogg foundations, and several others.

At the time, foundation President Ridgway White expressed concern about philanthropy coming to the rescue when public systems fail. White made clear that he felt the crisis was government-caused and needed a government fix. He added that long-term giving focused on growth and potential shouldn’t be ignored in the face of an immediate crisis.

“While helping Flint residents meet immediate needs related to lead contamination, we also must think ahead about how to help the community emerge from the crisis. We must not only repair harm but restore hope,” White wrote.

To that end, in 2016 the foundation pledged $100 million over five years to help Flint emerge from the crisis. The $60 million in education giving was part of that $100 million promise. With the new gift to support the Flint Cultural Center Academy, the Mott Foundation continues to look to the future.