Mapping the Landscape of Charter Management Organizations

Joanna Smith, Caitlin Farrell, Priscilla Wohlstetter, and Michelle Nayfak
Center on Educational Governance, University of Southern California
April 2009

It's been a big summer for charter school quality, with Arne Duncan's NAPCS conference speech and a much discussed study by CREDO. This USC team (which includes former Fordham Fellow Caitlin Farrell) goes behind the scenes to investigate a structural arrangement that might be expected to advance such quality: charter management organizations (CMOs). It's the most expansive overview to date--that we can recall--and nicely complements other CMO reports. Based on their criteria (non-profit, common instructional philosophy, central office management, three or more schools, and plans to grow), the USC analysts found 39 CMOs operating in the U.S. They interviewed leaders of 25 (others declined or did not respond) and share several useful statistics. Most CMOs are less than a decade old. Together, they operate schools in 26 states. Approximately 70 percent operate 10 or fewer schools, and the majority operates K-12 schools. CMOs garner significant support from such philanthropy heavyweights as the New Schools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation, and in some cases they also receive assistance from state legislatures. Yet CMO founders vary in their motive and strategy: Some focus on helping a specific city or regional area, while others concentrate their efforts where laws are most receptive to charter schools. Unsurprisingly, the CMO model has grown in popularity. Whereas early CMOs mostly grew out of single-campus schools, of late a CMO is more apt to be established before opening any school doors. This trend may be explained by the benefits of the CMO structure. Unlike stand-alone charters, CMOs can centralize administrative and support functions, replicate schools quickly, and enroll a critical mass of students. But however beneficial the streamlined model to organizational needs, the real question is whether it helps student achievement, too. Let's hope someone tackles that subject next. You can find the paper here.

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