Charter Schools Now Big Business Nationwide Management Firms Bring Money, Clout to Help Operate Them

Article excerpt

The early charter schools in Pennsylvania were largely the product of passionate parents or community groups, who sometimes planned their dream schools around the kitchen table.

But the picture has changed dramatically since the charter school law was passed in Pennsylvania in 1997, with an expansion of education management organizations that bring big money and clout into the picture.

While some of the early charter planners succeeded -- such as the Manchester Youth Development Center on the North Side, which then offered an after-school tutoring program and started the Manchester Academic Charter School -- many schools never materialized, with some planners saying it was harder than expected to come up with the necessary capital and expertise.

That was before so many businesses aimed at providing curriculum, management and facilities entered the scene, including organizations that don't just assist but help initiate support for a charter school.

Charter schools are public schools that have their own boards and are chartered by a local school district in the case of a bricks- and-mortar charter or by the state for a cyber charter. School districts pay a fee set by the state for their residents to attend.

Increasingly, locally elected school officials are finding their districts competing against charter schools allied with big organizations with big money and their own ideas for students.

"It's had a large impact on the growth of charter school reform," said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies charter schools.

Growth of EMOs

The number of education management organizations has exploded on the national scene -- for-profit groups growing from five in 1995- 96 to 99 in 2010-11 and nonprofit organizations growing from 48 in 1998 to 197 in 2010-11 -- according to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

That report showed that 35 percent of all public charter schools in the nation were operated by education management organizations -- both for-profit and nonprofit -- enrolling 42 percent of the nation's charter school students.

"Within a couple of years, we're going to see the EMO sector account for more than half of the nation's public charter school students," said Mr. Miron, one of the authors of the policy center's report.

Mr. Miron said charter school growth plateaued around 2001-02 but got a significant boost from education management organizations.

"There's only a certain number of people who are going to sit around a kitchen table to start a charter school," he said. "It was very complicated to run a school. Initially people thought anybody could open up a school, but eventually the stories came out about how difficult it was."

Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Council and a state legislator when the charter school law was passed, said the Legislature didn't envision "this idea of a national outfit deciding that there's a business profit-making opportunity in Pennsylvania and they would come in and either help to establish a not-for-profit or find a not-for-profit."

But given a lack of capacity or expertise by some who would like to start a charter school, "I think it's reasonable that somebody else would be paid to do this management stuff," he said, but added that there are questions about whether the fees are reasonable and whether there is enough accountability and transparency at some charter schools.

As education management organizations grew, they began to play a major role in fostering growth of charter schools, including encouraging the formation of some cyber charter schools which attract thousands of students.

"What we are having now is private control of public schools," said Mr. Miron.

One of the goals of charter schools, of course, is to improve academic achievement. Though there are high-performing and low- performing schools in both categories, in overall comparisons of charter schools to each other, Mr. …