Andre Agassi is not a morning person, at least not this day.
As the former tennis star walks into a private meeting room at
Manhattans Pierre hotel for an 8:30 a.m. photo shoot, he
chides his partner, money manager Bobby Turner, for scheduling
an early East Coast start. Agassi had arrived from his Las
Vegas home the day before, went with Turner to Flushing Meadows
in Queens to watch Roger Federer beat Richard Gasquet for a
spot in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, then dined in Midtown
before finishing the evening at the new Central Park South
apartment of hedge fund manager
Yet Agassi shakes off the jet lag and gamely steps up to be
photographed. Im not going to get any better
looking as the day goes on, he says. Then he sits down
over breakfast to discuss his real passion: charter school
education. He and Turner have teamed up to create a joint
venture, the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities
Fund, to support the sector. The firm just closed its
second fund, expecting to raise $400 million in equity capital
from investors including the University Endowment Fund of the
University of Michigan and private wealth clients of Bank of
America Merrill Lynch. Over the next five years, the fund,
managed by Turners social investing outfit Turner Impact
Capital, will invest some $1 billion to develop as many as 130
charter schools across the U.S. The ventures first fund,
launched in 2011, has to date built 50 schools educating a
total of about 22,800 students.
Agassi, 45, earned much of his education on the courts. He
began his professional tennis career in 1986, at the age of 16,
and went on to win all four of the sports major titles.
He started his own foundation in 2001, then devoted himself
fully to philanthropy after retiring from the game in 2006,
with a particular interest in at-risk youth and charter
schools. He has raised $175 million over 15 years for charter
schools, beginning with the Andre Agassi College Preparatory
Academy, which opened in Las Vegas in 2001; its 2009 class had
100 percent graduation and college acceptance rates.
Agassi wrote about his charter school success in his 2009
autobiography, Open. When Turner, then a partner and
head of the real estate business at Los Angelesbased
Canyon Partners, read the book, he had to get in touch.
I reached out through his agent, Turner says
(not difficult, given that Canyon and the Creative Artists
Agency, which represents Agassi and his wife, the equally
accomplished tennis player Steffi Graf, are headquartered in
the same Avenue of the Stars building in Los Angeles). After
securing an introduction, the money manager set about
convincing Agassi to go into the investment management
business. Andre was very skeptical at first, Turner
recalls. But Turner, 52, had an ace of his own. At Canyon he
had partnered with basketball great Earvin (Magic) Johnson to
develop the Canyon Johnson Urban Funds, which invest in
inner-city communities and seek to foster opportunities for
residents and address environmental concerns while achieving a
market-rate return. He suggested they could do the same for
charter schools by tapping the capital markets to magnify the
impact that Agassi was already making. Unlike grants and gifts,
investment dollars could create a flow of funds that would grow
rather than shrink over time.
I see one as a Band-Aid and the other as a medical
cure, Agassi says. I realized that the model is
really something that can work and I can help facilitate it.
And Ill be helping tens of hundreds of kids.
The real estate funds help create charter schools by
partnering with proven management teams and developing
facilities, which are then leased back to the schools. Over the
seven-year life cycle of each vehicle, the schools are intended
to gain financial independence, likely by accessing the debt
market or other sources. Combining debt and equity, the first
fund, which Turner was able to take with him when he left
Canyon to launch his own firm in 2014, had about $500 million
in capital. Turner says that operating outside of Canyon makes
it easier to pursue his triple bottom line objective.
The two dont rule out the idea that a Turner-Agassi
fund could receive an investment from a public pension plan,
but Turner concedes its unlikely theyll get any
money from teachers retirement funds, given strong
opposition to charter schools by teachers unions.
The difference between teachers unions and us: We
represent the children, Agassi says. You need
adults to be the advocates for kids, he adds.
A bigger issue is the high failure rate of charter schools.
Even the largely positive, and widely quoted, 2015 Urban Charter School Study Report on 41
Regions from the Center for Research on Education
Outcomes at Stanford University found that on average only 43
percent of urban charter schools perform better than their
peers in math, and 38 percent in reading. In six regions,
including Las Vegas, the overall performance of charter schools
is lower than that of their traditional public school
counterparts in either one or both disciplines. Agassi and
Turner acknowledge that charter schools arent perfect,
but they aim to avoid pitfalls by partnering with the
best-in-class experts. Our job is not to scale
mediocrity, Turner says.
Imogen Rose-Smiths blog and follow her on Twitter at