March 27, 2013; Source: Thomas B. Fordham Institute

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were more than 5,600 public charter schools in the U.S. in the 2011-2012 school year educating more than two million students. That’s a lot of nonprofit management experience that hasn’t been thoroughly examined and vetted for what works and what doesn’t. What might the nonprofit sector learn from charters?

A longtime advocate of charter schools and school choice in general, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a new report last week calling for a “reboot” of charter school governance, prompted by changes in the management environment of charters – the growth of nonprofit charter networks, the proliferation of for-profit charter school management companies, and the emergence of “virtual” charter schools. In other words, the notion of community-based, “one-off,” “freestanding” charter schools is increasingly a thing of an earlier era.

The report contends that charter schools have faced “myriad challenges,” some due to inexperienced board members who micromanaged school operations, but, according to the authors, “many governance woes were imposed by lawmakers or inflicted by authorizers.” In a rather negative commentary on public sector policymaking, the authors write, “Policymakers, legislators, and the public entities that sponsored charters had neither the creativity nor the capacity to envision and operationalize a truly innovative form of governance for these unconventional public schools.”

What did these lawmakers do that was so deficient in creativity and capacity? “[T]hey did what they knew best: issued rules and regulations. Most assumed that each school would have its own governing board, but many went further. Fourteen states, for instance, required charters to place parents or teachers in governing roles.” The changes suggested in the report include:

  1. Rather than requiring governing boards for each individual charter school, “[e]xisting charter networks that meet high-quality markets set by the state should be able to organize multiple schools under single networks.” In the view of the report, this will allow “high-performing networks…to replicate at scale.”
  2. The report notes that nonprofit “charter management organizations” (CMOs) and increasingly for-profit “education management organizations” (EMOs) tend to control the schools’ governing boards, rather than the boards controlling the CMOs and EMOs that theyA mechanism is needed to hold CMOs and EMOs to account and to guard against “overbearing” management companies.  Toward that end, the report calls for charter schools dealing with CMOs and EMOs to operate under a contract “to ensure the independence of the board and to disclose any conflicts of interest.”
  3. Virtual charter schools, because they serve students from beyond specific local school districts, should be authorized directly by states, the report argues.

These recommendations feel like something less than a full reboot. Rather, they feel like minimal modifications. The problems due to the proliferation of for-profit EMOs seem to have been bypassed. Is there any difference between nonprofit and for-profit charter school managers? The Fordham researchers actually provide a strong defense of for-profit EMOs, citing their “multiple benefits for charter schools, including venture capital, the capacity for research and development, entrepreneurial energy, and the ability to bring efficiency to nonprofit boards that otherwise lack access to economies of scale.”  But do nonprofit CMOs and for-profit EMOs lead to different educational outcomes? Does the profit motive undermine some aspects of public education, somewhat akin to the profit motive in for-profit higher education, which has led to different outcomes for students compared to their peers in public and nonprofit colleges?

If operated by CMO or EMO networks, will charter school boards be able to hold the big firms accountable because of the existence of a contract? The report provides no indication of whether EMO and CMO networks do better or worse than individually managed schools, much less whether nonprofits do better or worse than for-profit managers.

One other interesting dimension of the report is its sponsorship. The report’s full-throated support of charter schools and the faint criticism of EMOs are pretty consistent with conservative philanthropic supporters of school choice. Not surprisingly, the listed supporters of this report are the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the nation’s most significant funders of ideologically conservative think tanks, and the Walton Family Foundation, as significant a funder of school choice as there is in the nation.

But the report is not solely funded by conservative-leaning groups. Also among the report’s foundation supporters is the Carnegie Corporation, generally not considered ideologically conservative, and the report is identified as part of a multi-year partnership with the Center for American Progress, the very liberal think tank closely aligned with and rarely critical of the policies of the Obama administration. Charter schools get plenty of support from liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Do you buy the report’s sharply worded critique of the regulatory effects on charter schools due to public policymakers and legislators? —Rick Cohen