Breaking Down “The Chartered Course”



By 07/09/2014

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Is there a “tidal wave” coming for private school choice, as some have suggested? No doubt since the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 “The Year of School Choice,” policymakers’ actions creating and expanding such programs are rising—as is interest among parents. But are private education providers prepared to navigate this new environment?

In “The Chartered Course: Can Private School Choice Proponents Learn from the Charter School Sector?” Andy Smarick sets out to provide a helping hand, or compass, on new ways private schools might be able to scale-up and provide the quality education families are seeking. Smarick suggests charter schools’ 20-plus years of experience can serve as a guide.

Although the charter school and modern private school choice movements began around the same time (in 1991 and 1990, respectively), they’ve had very different experiences: Some 2.3 million children are enrolled in the charter sector’s tuition-free public schools. But just more than 300,000 participate in private school choice programs.

Regardless of what led to such a divergence—private school choice proponents say charters benefit from universal eligibility and higher per-pupil funding—the disparity in enrollment has given charters the tools and capacity to grow and the charter sector a greater ability to increase its market share. That reality is becoming increasingly possible for private schools as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts (ESAs) reach more families in more states.

To that end, Smarick encourages private school leaders to think about three key areas of opportunity: building a school network structure, encouraging incubation of high-potential schools, and considering an authorizer model as a way to quell concerns over accountability to the public and policymakers. The charter school sector has plenty of experience in all three domains and, thus, has potentially valuable lessons for private school leaders.

The School Network Structure

The school network structure is best represented in the form of Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), according to Smarick. CMOs began when charter schools looked to grow by creating central offices to manage or oversee multi-school networks. CMOs currently operate one of every five charter schools in the country. Students enrolled in schools overseen by CMOs have increased by more than 174 percent since 2007.

What makes CMOs successful? Smarick found they are able to leverage economies of scale and back-office support, recruit and groom talented teachers, build external partnerships with such groups as Teach For America and TNTP, and invest in their own staff to build future school leaders, ensuring long-term stability for schools.

Probably the best representative for this model in the present private school sector is the Cristo Rey Network. Private school leaders can and should learn from its experience, which likely will mirror many CMOs’ experiences.

The Incubation of High-Potential Schools

Charter schools also have benefitted from nonprofit “incubators,” which provide talent pipelines, facilities support, start-up funding, strategic guidance, stakeholder engagement, and political advocacy—each desperately needed in the private school community.

In advocacy alone, incubators could ensure private schools are up to date on legislative changes that affect their sector—something critically important as more private school choice programs are created and expanded. Incubators can discuss such developments with school leaders, educate the public on the effects policy changes will have on their communities, and advocate for policies that promote the growth of high-quality schools.

Presently, many private schools do not have the staff capacity, or the budget, to engage in these types of marketing activities.

Authorizer-Based Accountability

Charter school authorizers are public or nonprofit entities that hold their schools accountable for their performance and have the authority to close schools that fail to meet performance standards.

In one sense, this model would not be that new for private schools. Many already must be accountable to an external entity to maintain accreditation. This recommendation would expand that relationship to give the oversight body the ability to suspend a private school from participating in a public program for persistent poor performance. The authorizer model has each school negotiating an individualized performance contract, ensuring each school’s ability to tailor their educational services to the families they serve.

Smarick suggests that one type of authorizer might be particularly well suited to serving in an accountability role for private schools participating in public programs: an independent chartering board (ICB). ICBs are single-purpose entities (focusing solely on authorizing) and they are largely free of political meddling, helping ensure decisions are based on the proper factors.

“The Chartered Course”

As a final matter, Smarick notes that there is a glaring lack of collaboration among high-quality schools from the charter and private school sectors (though there are some exceptions, including initiatives undertaken by Schools That Can and the Philadelphia Schools Partnership). Both sectors, charter and private, would reap enormous benefit from strengthening trust, relationships, and smart collaboration as their profiles increase in the education industry and among the general public.

If the growth of school choice programs continues, then the demand for diverse, high-quality private schooling options will very likely rise as well. We must think creatively about how best to expand the supply of schooling options, both private and charter.

Private school leaders should consider using “The Chartered Course” as a road map to grow their networks and reach of their schools while meeting the needs, interests, and priorities of parents and their children.

- Paul DiPerna

Paul DiPerna is Research Director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. This first appeared on the blog of the Friedman Foundation.




Comment on this article
  • Melissa Westbrook says:

    I find a couple of statements here amusing.

    One, why is it that charters think they are so great that everyone should be emulating THEM? Just as there are great public schools and great private schools, there are great charters. But we all know that the majority are not.

    Two, most private schools are independent schools and there’s a reason for that. They want to run themselves in the manner they see fit and many parents, say Bill Gates, like that for their own children. Why would a CMO appeal to them?

    Three, if vouchers, et al, do become more popular (and that’s a huge maybe as they seem to be more noise than reality), I would think that would strengthen the hand of private schools as more parents would have dollars to go private. Again, why should any private school – especially a long-standing one – want to join a group that would tell them what to do?

    Accreditation is one thing but they don’t need a CMO for that.

    This article sounds like it’s trying to get private and charters in bed together for the purpose of getting rid of real public schools. I think it’s a miss.

  • Paul DiPerna says:

    Melissa, I definitely appreciate this kind of feedback. And I respect your advocacy for public schools.

    You raise some valid points. Though I think you may misunderstand some intentions for commissioning and publicly sharing this report.

    There are a number of questions and points made in your thoughtful comment, and I’ll do my best to address here:

    (1) “One, why is it that charters think they are so great that everyone should be emulating THEM? Just as there are great public schools and great private schools, there are great charters. But we all know that the majority are not.”

    I believe some of the most ardent charter school supporters can also be some of the most introspective and self-critical of the sector.

    Take for instance some of the public discussions that have been led by folks at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).

    To say which schools are “great” or not can be in the eye of the beholder.

    What do we know empirically?

    Americans are more likely to give high grades to their local charter and private schools than to local district schools (documented in PEPG/Ed Next surveys and Friedman Foundation polls)

    Random assignment (“gold standard”) studies are more likely to show significant, positive academic effects linked to charter schools and private school voucher programs, than negative or no effects.

    These observations and facts warrant the kind of exploratory analysis that Andy Smarick provides in his fine report.

    (2) “Two, most private schools are independent schools and there’s a reason for that. They want to run themselves in the manner they see fit and many parents, say Bill Gates, like that for their own children. Why would a CMO appeal to them?”

    This is a valid point. But I believe you are assuming that future school models will resemble current ones. Maybe the schools of the future, taking particular advantage of new communications technologies, will benefit from CMO-like structures or other types of network-based structures.

    We really don’t know yet how school entrepreneurs will respond to choice-based funding systems because we are just at the starting line when it comes to local choice-based educational marketplaces.

    It is way too early to know or gauge the response to new K-12 education marketplaces consisting of charters and private schools. With some imagination and local leadership, local district school and leaders could take part of this new marketplace too.

    (3) “Three, if vouchers, et al, do become more popular (and that’s a huge maybe as they seem to be more noise than reality), I would think that would strengthen the hand of private schools as more parents would have dollars to go private. Again, why should any private school – especially a long-standing one – want to join a group that would tell them what to do?”

    “Accreditation is one thing but they don’t need a CMO for that.”

    This is also a reasonable point, especially as it relates to older and financially stable private schools. I think the key question is how that type of arrangement will affect/support/etc. the creation of NEW schools, as opposed to recruiting or appealing to existing schools. That is unknown territory in the private sector, and as a response to voucher, ESA, and tax-credit scholarship programs. We just don’t know how entrepreneurs are going to respond because like I said these K-12 marketplaces are very new and still emerging.

    If a school network (like or unlike a CMO) provides benefits as described in Smarick’s paper that outweigh the costs of participation, then I think it’s very conceivable that school entrepreneurs will be fine with the trade-offs.

    That said, even for existing private schools, if a school network affords a given school to thrive and expand within a choice-based system, and it actually supports and benefits a school’s mission (like religious schools seeking to educate specific populations of students), then it is conceivable that a positive tradeoff would be enough reason to participate in the network as well as a choice-based system, above and beyond the costs.

    (4) “This article sounds like it’s trying to get private and charters in bed together for the purpose of getting rid of real public schools.”

    All I can say – as a public school parent – is that this could not be further from the truth. The essential point of a choice-based system is to separate the funding mechanism for K-12 schools from the administration/operation of schools. There is little reason why we cannot have district schools as part of a choice-based funding system, along with charter schools and private schools. Some state constitutions can make the job difficult, but with strong leadership anything is possible to develop new ways to finance public education, including district, charter, and private schools.

    Again, I’m grateful for these comments. One of the underlying goals for commissioning this paper has been to generate public discussion considering topics and questions like those you have raised here!

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