Guest blogger Robin Lake is associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In this post, she responds to “Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector,” a Public Impact-authored policy brief co-released yesterday by Fordham’s Ohio team and CEE-Trust.

Public Impact’s new paper on incubators is a well-needed addition to the conversation about scaling high-quality charter schools. I’ve been saying for some time that CMOs, no matter how good, cannot be the charter sector’s sole answer to new school supply.

For the past five years, most of the private philanthropy to support
new charter schools has gone to CMOs and the feds have increasingly
targeted start-up funding to replication. But CMOs are an expensive path
to scale and one that is yielding uneven quality.
Importantly, CMOs tend to locate in major urban areas with a strong TFA
presence and high per-pupil funding. For cities like Indianapolis,
Minneapolis, and Milwaukee, all the recruiting in the world is unlikely
to attract respected CMOs like Aspire or Achievement First. Also
problematic is the fact that many talented would-be charter founders
want nothing to do with large, highly centralized, and sometimes
bureaucratic CMOs. We need alternatives to CMOs that recognize these
realities and create scale and replication options for small cities and
entrepreneurial leaders.

To be clear, the overall quality of standalone charter schools has
been nothing to write home about. Founders of “mom and pop” charter
schools tend to lack the clear and compelling vision of high performance
that characterizes the best CMOs. To be more reliably successful,
standalones need help. That’s where incubators come in. These local
organizations are designed to bring the best of CMO training and support
to aspiring charter starters without a lifetime commitment to
centralized management and associated costs and organizational

CRPE has been writing
about incubation since 2000. We looked at successful business
incubators and suggested how the same concept might work in education.
The Public Impact paper takes this concept further and gives
policymakers ideas for funding incubators and creating the right policy
conditions to make them work well. The best suggestion I saw for funding
was to redirect some SIG money to support incubation. The comparative
ROI there would be tremendous.

As a caution, not all incubators have been successful. One in Dayton
flopped several years ago because charter schools in Ohio didn’t have a
lot of incentive to listen to the incubator staff. And those who run
CMOs are dubious that an incubator, which doesn’t have direct control
over the schools it spawns, could produce high-quality schools
consistently. But the Mind Trust, NSNO, 4.0 Schools, Get Smart Schools,
and others are showing that, when paired with a strong authorizing
environment, incubators can be extremely effective complements to
scale-up efforts nationwide.

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