Robin Lake, Brianna Dusseault, Melissa Brown, Allison Demeritt, and Paul Hill
Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington and Mathematica Policy Research
This important study of CMOs has another year to run--it's already run for two years--but the interim findings are important enough, and sobering enough, to warrant attention now. This joint CRPE and Mathematica effort adds to previous CRPE and other research on one of the hottest ideas in education-reform: the non-profit "charter management organization." As an alternative to one-off "mom and pop" charters, and as a way of bringing quality, scale, efficiency, and replicability to the charter sector, CMOs are favorites among policy makers (including Arne Duncan), philanthropists, and policy wonks. (Their for-profit counterparts, known as EMOs or Education Management Organizations, are also growing.) This study, however, flashes a number of amber caution lights. It seems that CMOs have great difficulty making ends meet (without continuous infusions of philanthropic dollars), due at least in part to the systematic underfunding of charter schools by states. It also turns out that replication of successful school models is mighty darn difficult--and that the efforts of CMO "central offices" to build systematic practices, predictability, and coherence threaten to re-create the regulatory overburden and heavy-handedness of traditional school systems. The authors make a number of suggestions for improving CMO efficiency and effectiveness but they also urge that we not rely exclusively on CMOs to "scale up" quality charter schools. (Their half-dozen "other approaches," however, are barely hinted at.) This one deserves your attention.