Author(s): Andy Smarick
The charter and private school choice movements began just a year apart in 1991 and 1990, respectively. Today, 23 years after the first charter law was passed in Minnesota, 2.3 million children are enrolled in these tuition-free public schools whereas just 300,000 participate in private school choice programs. Though the lull in private school choice activity was lamentable for its advocates, it has a silver lining. As recently passed programs get off the ground and new programs become approved, what can the private school choice movement learn from charter schooling’s now two-plus decades of experience?
Private school choice proponents can learn from the charter sector’s experience in three key areas:
- the school network structure,
- the incubation of high-potential schools, and
- authorizer-based accountability.
The school network structure has driven growth in the charter sector in the form of Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). CMOs began when charter schools looked to grow by creating central offices to manage or oversee multi-school networks; they currently operate one of every five charter schools in the country. Though key characteristics vary across CMOs, their network structures have several common elements that could benefit private school choice:
- central offices with the potential to provide efficiencies in finance and staffing,
- administrative support that allows school leaders to focus on instructional leadership,
- coordinated demand for talent that enables access to alternative educator pipelines, and
- internal investments to support effective teaching and internal leadership development.
Nonprofit incubator organizations also have played a central role in the growth of charter schools. Charter school incubators provide talent pipelines, facilities support, start-up funding, strategic support, stakeholder engagement, and political advocacy. The private school choice sector would benefit from organizations that play a similar role. Private school incubators have the potential to:
- streamline access to pipelines of school leaders, national funders, and strategic support,
- serve as a proxy for school quality,
- coordinate political advocacy within and across schooling sectors, and
- sponsor collaboration between high-quality private and charter schools.
Charter school authorizers also hold their schools accountable for their performance and have the authority to close schools that fail to meet performance standards or goals. Good authorizing practices could help contribute to the development or improvement of a city’s private school sector through:
- independent authorizing agencies and
- performance contracts.
Similar to Independent Chartering Boards, states could develop independent agencies to oversee private school choice programs. Such an agency would provide separation from the State Education Agency (SEA), which operates under direct oversight of elected public officials and typically is focused on compliance and regulations. It could also develop accountability mechanisms, including performance contracts, that are sensitive to the independence of private schools as well as the need for public accountability.
Finally, two themes emerged consistently throughout this project:
First, there is a glaring lack of collaboration among high-quality schools from the charter and private school sectors. Talent pipelines, philanthropies, and incubators seem to operate in an unfortunately bifurcated environment, despite a shared commitment to providing high-quality educational options, particularly for underserved students.
Second, both sectors would reap enormous benefit from greater collaboration. Charter and private schools operate under different regulations but have many of the same concerns, yet these schools are more likely to collaborate with other schools in their sector than other schools of their similar quality in different sectors. With regard to political advocacy, human capital, and much more, highly effective charter and private schools would do well to team up and identify ways to cooperatively create more seats available to students in need.
By making use of successful elements of the charter sector, the private school sector can help break down the walls separating the two, enabling a more agnostic view of schooling sectors, particularly urban ones, defined by quality and service to students.