Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Scaling Up: Successes and Challenges of Growing High-Quality Charter Networks

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Scaling Up: Successes and Challenges of Growing High-Quality Charter Networks

Article excerpt

MAY 2016

Executive Summary.

In January 2016, there were more than 6,800 charter schools nationwide, up from zero in 1990 and roughly 1,500 in 2000. This indicates that the charter sector is a mix of brand-new and more established schools, each run by operators of varying size and experience.

Great Hearts Academies, Uncommon Schools, and Carpe Diem Learning Systems are all charter networks that began in the early 2000s. Each has grown during that time, although to different degrees: Great Hearts has nearly 30 schools, Uncommon more than 40, and Carpe Diem just six. The networks also represent a range of learning approaches and geographical locations. And each network has faced distinct challenges as it has scaled up.

How did these three networks manage to grow to their current scale, and why have they not expanded even more in response to high demand for quality educational options? What are the barriers to expansion facing these and other networks, and do these barriers change over the life of a network? These are the questions this paper seeks to address.

This paper explores what aspects of the charter school landscape facilitated growth and what aspects deterred it. It presents profiles of the three networks based on interviews with teachers, principals, central-office staff, and executives. The profiles describe each network's unique pedagogical model and story about expansion. The common thread is that the major challenges for each network were regulatory, financial, or human-capital challenges, with the last being the primary impediment to growth.

With the charter sector growing so markedly in the past 15 years, there are ample opportunities for new and established operators alike to serve students. But for the sector to continue to grow, it will need to evaluate which factors have contributed to and which factors have constrained its growth up to this point. Operators can and should draw on the experiences of others who have successfully confronted these challenges.

State policymakers also have a role to play in encouraging the proliferation of quality educational options. For example, policymakers can help charter operators become certifying bodies, reduce barriers to entry for operators with track records of success, and lift charter caps for operators already in the state.

Since Minnesota adopted the nation's first charter school law in 1991, charters have proliferated across the country. While there was significant growth in the 1990s, charter schools have really taken off since 2000. Currently, there are more than 6,800 charters nationwide, representing about 6 percent of all public schools. This report looks at three management organizations facing different challenges to growth. The biggest, Uncommon Schools, has 43 schools and enrolls more than 14,000 students; Great Hearts Academies has 27 schools; and Carpe Diem Learning has 6 schools. This kind of growth requires significant additional investments in infrastructure, human capital, regulatory compliance, pedagogical and instructional support, and much else.

How did these networks manage to expand? This paper explores what aspects of the charter school landscape--whether regulatory, financial, or human capital--facilitated or deterred growth, as well as what effects expansion has for teachers, school leadership staff, and home-office staff.

This is a propitious moment to look at growth because charter schools are gaining more public awareness and media coverage, yet operators still face significant challenges to growth. Are these the same factors that deterred expansion at the beginning of a network's life? What barriers to expansion do established charter operators face? Why have these operators not expanded even more?

This paper presents profiles of three charter school networks based on interviews conducted with five to six individuals in each network, including teachers, principals, central-office staff, and executives. …

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