The $500 Million Question: Can Charter Management Organizations Deliver Quality Education at Scale?

Education Next, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The $500 Million Question: Can Charter Management Organizations Deliver Quality Education at Scale?


Charter school management organizations (CMOs) have emerged as a popular means for bringing charter schooling to scale. Advocates credit CMOs with delivering a coherent model of charter schooling to a growing number of children across numerous sites. Skeptics have wondered whether CMOs constitute an effective management approach, whether they won't merely re-create the pathologies of school districts as they grow in size and scale, and whether they are well-suited to make use of new technological tools. In this forum, Robin Lake of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF) CEO Kevin Hall discuss what we know about the strengths and frailties of CMOs, what the future holds, and what promising alternatives might be.

EN: How should we define a "quality" charter school? How does quality vary between those operated by CMOs and those that are not? What is the track record of CMOs to date, in terms of quality-conscious growth and replication?

Kevin Hall: At a minimum, a high-quality charter school produces a vast majority of students who meet or exceed academic standards regardless of their ethnic or socioeconomic background and who are well prepared for postsecondary success.

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The Charter School Growth Fund invests in CMOs that operate networks of high-quality charter schools, providing grant and loan financing packages that enable these organizations to expand their capacity to serve more low-income and minority students. Over the past five years, CSGF has invested in more than 20 nonprofit charter-school operators. Among them are successful charter school networks across the country, such as Achievement First, YES Prep, KIPP, Rocketship Education, and IDEA Public Schools. In fall 2010, CSGF announced the launch of a new fund of $160 million to invest in the expansion of the best-performing charter schools and CMOs nationally over the next five years.

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Approximately 95 percent of CSGF's member schools enable students to outperform comparable district schools in both math and reading; nearly 70 percent of schools enable their students to outperform state averages in both math and reading, although they serve much higher than average percentages of low-income and minority students. Some of our CMO schools are beginning to close the achievement gap; their students perform better than affluent students who traditionally outperform low-income students by a significant margin. This is an extremely rare level of performance, particularly for organizations that run a number of schools.

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While success stories reveal the potential of high-quality charter schools (and CMOs in particular), there are certainly many poorly performing charter schools across the country as well. It is important that those schools be closed in order to protect the integrity of the charter schools proposition: increased flexibility in exchange for performance accountability. As a balance to that strategy, however, there also needs to be an effort to expand the reach of the highest performers, particularly those that are able to scale their work to serve more students. Several of the CMOs in our portfolio are improving their performance as they get bigger, a historical rarity in the K-12 sector, though a phenomenon that is quite common in other sectors.

Robin Lake: The quality of any school, charter or not, has to be measured in terms of outcomes: are students better prepared for college, career, and citizenship than they would have been had they not attended that school? Rigorous research on charter school performance (studies that make true apples-to-apples comparisons) shows that there is tremendous variation nationally; charter schools often outperform traditional public schools, though not the majority of the time. When it comes to educating low-income students, however, charter schools do tend to outperform other public schools. …

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