Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Education Forecast--Charter Management Organizations

Checker Finn at the Fordham Foundationlooks back at 2005 and gazes into his crystal ball for the new year.

Among his predictions comes this one:
Third, the charter school movement, aware now that it has mortal enemies on all sides and that school quality is the only valuable currency going forward, will bestir itself to strengthen its forces and hasten development of organizations capable of running—and replicating—high-performing schools. This is already evident on the philanthropic front, where we see an accelerating push to start and expand effective "charter management organizations" (aka CMOs).

This development is due. Many people blast people like Chris Whittle, but like it or not Whittle is a visionary on this score. The biggest drawback of the current charter school model is that it remains very isolated. Not isolated in terms of geography, but isolated in terms of the fact that each school largely stands alone in the face of an educational establishment seeking to minimize their growth; alone before bureaucratic hurdles requiring more and more legal expertise, expertise they cannot necessarily afford or obtain; alone before even greater demands for accountability and transparency at all levels and from all stakeholders.

Whittle recognized that organizations with some scale can achieve cost and transactional savings that small organizations cannot. Granted, Whittle spoke of larger school districts, but the same thinking applies for charter schools, which are, in effect, school districts unto themselves.

As charter management organizations grow, and they will grow, they will be increasingly able to do something that individual charter schools cannot do--go toe to toe with local school boards and state legislatures. These local and state government entities will no doubt become increasingly hostile to charters who are siphoning off more and more students, thus more and more control/power. The danger will come because these school boards and legislatures hold in their hands the requisite power to permit or deny the very existence of charter schools.

The political battle will be joined, not for existence and recognition, but survival and growth.

In addition to the political/regulatory hurdles facing these CMO's, there are a couple of major concerns that will need to be addressed. First, a CMO, by its very nature places an additional layer of bureaucracy into the charter movement, a movement that has flourished on a low-overhead approach to educational spending. These CMOs, whether for-profit or non-profit will have to be funded in some method that eats away at funds (which has been the criticism of Whittle's Edison Schools, a for-profit company). Yet regardless of their business structure and nature, CMO's will have to justify their existence and they must take care not become the monster charter opponents will portray them as.

Second, the organic growth of CMO's will likely follow one of two tracks. The first a more centralized CMO, with curriculum development, school design and central control over the schools comprising its organization. This CMO will probably begin as an association of one or two schools, but then grows organically, opening more schools. This is a model envisioned, in part, by Whittle and others looking to build for profit CMOs.

A second model will look more like a trade association. The trade assocaition model pools its resources for common tasks, such as group wide legal and political issues, school management research and training and curriculum research and development. The individual schools would be members, driving a more decentralized associational set up, which leaves individual schools to meet their goals, without much interference from the association staff.

Both models have their advantages and charter management organizations have hurdles to leap, but make no mistake, they are coming and it is about time.

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