Why the charter movement can’t survive on networks alone

Why the charter movement can’t survive on networks alone
As independent charter schools struggle to grow, expert calls for return to roots

April 12, 2018—Is the charter school movement living up to its pioneering vision of diversity? As charter school growth slows to around two percent annually, charter networks are increasingly crowding out single-site charter schools, inadvertently stifling key tenets of the movement: variety in the populations served, the types of educational options offered, and the backgrounds of school leaders. In a new article for Education Next, Derrell Bradford of 50CAN examines the political and social forces limiting opportunities for prospective leaders of these single-site, “mom-and-pops,” and why the future of the movement depends on their success.

“The standalone or single-site school, and an environment that supports its creation and maintenance, are essential if we are to achieve a successful and respon­sive mix of school options for families,” says Bradford. Among the barriers to entry for single-site schools:

Access to support, shared knowledge, and expert guidance. Unlike charter management organizations or education management organizations (CMOs and EMOS), which have experience opening schools and have learned how to handle startup challenges from managing finances to hiring personnel, leaders trying to start independent schools are typically working without a playbook. Management organizations are also more likely to have resources that allow them to bring in consulting firms to share expertise on issues like strategic planning.

Networking and capital. School leaders who have a strong network and opportunities to access capital are more likely to be successful. A study of 639 charter school applications in four states found that those identifying an external funding source were 7 percentage points more likely to be approved than those that did not.

Quality defined by test scores. Over time, authorizers have increasingly defined quality by test scores, and by this measure, the CMOs come out ahead. Schools run by CMOs have produced greater gains in student learning on state assessments than their district-school counterparts, while the mom-and-pops have fared less well, possibly making the single-site schools less attractive to authorizers. But charter advocates note that many standalone charters serve extremely high needs populations and thus may take longer to demonstrate strong performance on state tests.

To help more mom-and-pops succeed, and, in the process, help expand and diversify the movement as a whole while advancing its political credibility and sustainability, Bradford recommends fostering better industry-wide support for single-site leaders, including building flexible networks of consultants; recruiting from non-traditional sources to diversify the pool of potential leaders, in terms of both race and worldview; and, allowing new schools more time to produce tangible results.

To receive an embargoed copy of “Strengthening the Roots of the Charter-School Movement: How the mom-and-pops can help the sector diversify and grow” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at jackie.kerstetter@educationnext.org. The article will be available Tuesday, April 17 on www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Summer 2018 issue of Education Next, available in print on May 24, 2018.

About the Author: Derrell Bradford is executive vice president of 50CAN, a national nonprofit that advocates for equal opportunity in K–12 education.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.

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