Brand-Name Charters: The Franchise Model Applied to Schools

Article excerpt

If you had been a 10-year-old on the streets of San Lorenzo, California, in the summer of 2003, you would have had a hard time avoiding Jason Singer and Cathy Cowan. Singer, now 37, had enlisted Cowan, a teacher, to help him recruit 5th-grade students for the charter middle school he planned to open in just a few weeks.

"We talked to children in parks and churches," says Cowan, now 48, "sitting on park benches or playing in their own yards. If we spotted a likely child, we'd follow him home, then ring the doorbell and talk to his parents."

The pair were unlikely stalkers. After college Singer had spent two years in Trinidad as a Ful-bright scholar studying the impact of race on imagination. As part of the Mississippi Teacher Corps, he'd taught literature to high school students in Greenwood, then launched a nonprofit youth employment organization and a for-profit airline ticket exchange. Cowan, who holds an undergraduate degree in business and a master's in education, had left a corporate job to join the New York City Teaching Fellows program.

Singer had just spent a year as a Fisher Fellow in a program run by the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Foundation in San Francisco, training designed to turn him into a school principal with an entrepreneur's skill set. He'd spent weeks in college classrooms learning business practices and months in KIPP schools seeing how they are run. Then he landed in San Lorenzo, a racially diverse, low-income city about 15 miles south of Oakland, to start KIPP Summit Academy from scratch.

KIPP was founded in 1994 by Teach For America alums Michael Feinberg and David Levin, who now run KIPP schools in Houston and the South Bronx. In 2000, Gap founders Doris and Don Fisher donated $15 million to start the KIPP Foundation, with a goal of replicating Feinberg and Levin's charter school model across the country. Since then, more than 50 founding principals like Singer have launched 57 KIPP schools in 17 states, plus Washington, D.C., serving over 14,000 students. Another 13 Fisher Fellows are now searching for sites and teachers for schools they will open in 2008. CEO Richard Barth says the network expects to have about 100 KIPP schools operating by 2011.

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That rate of expansion is rare in today's charter school world. Beginning in the late 1990s, for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) like New York City-based Edison Schools began expanding at what Steven F. Wilson, author of Learning on the Job, called a "dizzying pace." Edison, founded by publishing millionaire Christopher Whittle in 1992, grew to 51 schools in just four years; Advantage, which Wilson started in 1997, was managing 16 charter schools within two years. But even that pace was not fast enough, and only a handful of EMOs became profitable before their capital ran out and they had to close some of the schools they had just opened. Edison spent a disastrous two years as a public company and now operates 31 charter schools and provides management services to 54 district schools. Advantage was merged into Mosaica, which runs 35 charter schools in eight states and the District of Columbia.

The great majority of charter schools are single institutions, founded by local education reformers. According to "Quantity Counts: The Growth of Charter School Management Organizations," published in August 2007 by the National Charter School Research Project (NCSRP) at the University of Washington in Seattle, of the 3,600 charter schools, which served over 1 million students in the 2006-07 school year, only 9 percent were operated or managed by a nonprofit charter management organization (CMO) or for-profit EMO. According to the NCSRP, the country now has 24 EMOs and about 30 CMOs. Most of these organizations are controlled from a central office and are growing slowly because their headquarters staff can only manage the complicated task of opening schools one at a time. …