EdBuild Seeks to Bring Innovation to Struggling School Systems

JERSEY CITY, N.J.– School reform crusader Michelle Rhee’s recent shockwave announcement that she was stepping down as CEO of StudentsFirst left other staff members pondering their options. One former staffer, Rebecca Sibilia, previously fiscal strategy manager for StudentsFirst (the 2-million member grassroots group Rhee founded) and a former CFO under Rhee for D.C., pulled five StudentsFirst colleagues to create EdBuild, an education reform startup seeking to redesign school finance.

It aims to better manage education resources at state and local levels in the realms of infrastructure, workforce and funding equitability. Sibilia said for the past three years, she led StudentsFirst piloted division examining how to better spend the nation’s approximately $600 billion in education spending.

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Rebecca Sibilia gives a Tedx talk in Sacramento in 2012.

“When you think about this enormous investment, and it’s not being leveraged to create healthy competition, there’s something wrong with that,” Sibilia told Opportunity Lives.

On the infrastructure front, Sibilia said considerable public investment has gone toward innovative community revitalization to bring middle class families back to former rust-belt cities, but that hasn’t necessarily been paired with innovative education reform.

“They’re investing all this money in the economic development side and it’s absolutely fundamentally different than what the school systems are doing,” said Sibilia, who pointed out that in some states, local funding couldn’t go to charter schools unless the school district has authorized the spending. This leads to conflicts with local public school leaders who often feel threatened by the growth of charters.

On the other hand, in states like Connecticut, she said most charters are authorized by the state and can only be funded by state resources. In practice this means there is limited coordination between communities and their charter schools.

“For a traditional public school system, they’ll preserve these crazy underutilized buildings,” she said, pointing to D.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia, as locations where public schools have not downsized to meet the dropping enrollment. In New York City, Mayor De Blasio has come under fire for plans to block charter schools from “co-locating” in shared space with public schools.

Too often the most struggling schools have the most federal and state strings attached to how they can spend their money.

“The districts are just maintaining these enormous portfolio facilities,” Sibilia said. “How do we start to get these resources right-sized out to the charter schools?”

Sibilia said an example of better charter integration into the local community was in Washington D.C., where district leaders asked charter schools considering entering the area if they could bring some other type of amenity. For example, a charter school with the Knowledge Is Power Program located in one underserved community and brought a dental clinic. Another school, Thurgood Marshall Academy, built a new gymnasium open to all students, including public school students.

“We started to see charters taking on the revitalizing of their community when they were asked to,” she said.

EdBuild’s planned operating model for now is a hybrid of think tank and consultancy for states and school districts across the country. A New Jersey native, Sibilia said she is bringing EdBuild “home” for her after more than 10 years in education finance around the country. She’s moving cross-country from Sacramento, Calif., where StudentsFirst is located, to headquarter EdBuild in Jersey City.

In the teacher workforce area, EdBuild’s strategy centers on differentiated compensation structures along with housing and recruitment incentives to attract the best talent to struggling schools. Data shows too often the worst performing teachers are assigned to students with the most vulnerable socioeconomic situations. Sibilia praised Campbell Brown’s efforts to reform teacher tenure in New York.

On the funding equitability issue, she said local control of money is key to coming up with solutions on the education front lines rather than mandates from distant bureaucracies. In contrast to wealthier school districts whose tax base is more self-sustaining and thereby more self-directed, she said too often the most struggling schools have the most federal and state strings attached to how they can spend their money. The result is kids’ educational quality can be compromised as administrators and teachers struggle to comply with so many mandates.

Many struggling schools also need adjusted operating revenue and relief from considerable, ongoing pension debt servicing, another area that Sibilia’s team is analyzing. EdBuild is also looking at solutions such as tax credits, pay-for-performance contracts, and social impact bonds. Sibilia said the most pressing step in this process is improving public awareness and accountability of how taxpayer money is spent.

“It’s an enormous black hole,” she said. “If we do our job right, the first thing is we’re going to bring a whole lot more transparency in terms of what’s happening with the money.”