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
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
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
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. …