Incubate to promulgate

Better Choices coverSince 2005, Fordham has been working in Ohio to recruit high-quality
charter schools to neighborhoods badly in need of better schools. During
our six-plus years of effort we have managed to recruit just two
high-performing models to Columbus (KIPP and a Building Excellent
venture). Tougher still, we have been unable to recruit any to our home
town of
Dayton. We know first-hand just how hard it is to help recruit and
launch great
schools, especially to a Rust Belt state like Ohio. It is for this
reason that
we are excited about the work of organizations across the country to
the growth of great new schools through a strategic process called

Charter incubators are entities that intentionally build the
supply of high-quality schools and charter-management organizations (CMOs) in
cities or regions by recruiting, selecting, and training promising leaders, and
supporting those leaders as they launch new schools. Groups leading this
innovative effort include New
Schools for New Orleans
, the
Tennessee Charter School Incubator
, Get
Smart Schools
in Colorado, Charter
School Partners
in Minnesota, The Mind Trust’s Charter School
in Indianapolis, and 4.0
in several southeastern states.

These organizations are united in their belief
that the development of great charter schools can be accelerated through these
initiatives to bring in and support great leaders as they open and operate
charter schools. Incubators provide an up-front quality screen for new leaders,
and with intensive support on the ground, they boost the odds that new schools will

Public Impact’s crackerjack researchers Joe Ableidinger and
Julie Kowal explain in their new policy brief—Better
Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School
—that incubators are an important tool to help meet the demands
of parents and students for more quality schools of choice. An estimated
420,000 students linger on charter waiting lists. Hundreds of thousands more are
stuck in failing schools without quality options available.

Yet, despite this demand, high-quality charters are growing
too slowly. Ableidinger and Kowal cite statistics from 2011-12 that show the
country’s top five CMOs—Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Green
Dot, and Achievement First—together serve just 61,000 pupils.

How to grow better schools faster? The authors distill five
main characteristics of successful charter incubators:

  1. Selective screening for
    high-potential school leaders
    . Incubators focus on the recruitment and
    selection of top talent, restricting their services to a small group vetted for
    its leadership promise.
  2. Strategic focus on
    leadership development
    . Incubators develop promising leaders or
    leadership teams through months-long rigorous fellowships and training that help
    them open and operate successful schools.
  3. Expertise in new starts. While some charter-support
    organizations provide ongoing services to charter schools, incubators' primary
    focus is on recruiting and supporting new charter start-ups or new school
    leaders, including the provision of financial resources to talented leaders to
    develop and build new schools.
  4. Public accountability. As a result of their
    intense, direct relationships with school leaders, incubators, their funders,
    and the public tend to judge their success by the performance of the schools
    they incubated.
  5. Regional focus. Local ties help
    incubators provide powerful support to school leaders as they open and operate
    new schools. Such targeted assistance can include access to funding,
    introductions to other local leaders, technical expertise (e.g. financial,
    academic, or organizational), or direct support to encourage things like a
    planning year, intensive fellowship programs, and training activities.

Ableidinger and Kowal also highlight strategies that
federal, state, and local policymakers can implement to launch, strengthen, and
expand the work of charter incubators. The authors note, “Targeted funding and
changes to key policies can help incubators thrive in their target cities or
regions, boosting the supply of promising leaders who start high-performing
charter schools and ensuring that these leaders are adequately supported as
they open and operate their schools.”

The emerging work of charter incubators across the
country is an important reform strategy that states and communities should learn
more about. As Better Choices points
out, the cost of incubation is far lower than the costs of other reform options
and slighter still compared to the social and economic costs of continued
school failure.

Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy
for Improving the Charter Sector was
co-commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust.

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