Is there a “tidal wave” coming for private school choice, as some have suggested? No doubt since the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 “The Year of School Choice,” policymakers’ actions creating and expanding such programs are rising—as is interest among parents. But are private education providers prepared to navigate this new environment?
In The Chartered Course: Can Private School Choice Proponents Learn from the Charter School Sector? Andy Smarick sets out to provide a helping hand, or compass, on new ways private schools might be able to scale-up and provide the quality education families are seeking. Smarick suggests charter schools’ 20-plus years of experience can serve as a guide.
Although the charter school and modern private school choice movements began around the same time (in 1991 and 1990, respectively), they’ve had very different experiences: Some 2.3 million children are enrolled in the charter sector’s tuition-free public schools. But just more than 300,000 participate in private school choice programs.
Regardless of what led to such a divergence—private school choice proponents say charters benefit from universal eligibility and higher per-pupil funding—the disparity in enrollment has given charters the tools and capacity to grow and the charter sector a greater ability to increase its market share. That reality is becoming increasingly possible for private schools as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts (ESAs) reach more families in more states.
To that end, Smarick encourages private school leaders to think about three key areas of opportunity: building a school network structure, encouraging incubation of high-potential schools, and considering an authorizer model as a way to quell concerns over accountability to the public and policymakers. The charter school sector has plenty of experience in all three domains and, thus, has potentially valuable lessons for private school leaders.
The School Network Structure
The school network structure is best represented in the form of Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), according to Smarick. CMOs began when charter schools looked to grow by creating central offices to manage or oversee multi-school networks. CMOs currently operate one of every five charter schools in the country. Students enrolled in schools overseen by CMOs have increased by more than 174 percent since 2007.
What makes CMOs successful? Smarick found they are able to leverage economies of scale and back-office support, recruit and groom talented teachers, build external partnerships with such groups as Teach For America and TNTP, and invest in their own staff to build future school leaders, ensuring long-term stability for schools.
Probably the best representative for this model in the present private school sector is the Cristo Rey Network. Private school leaders can and should learn from its experience, which likely will mirror many CMOs’ experiences.
The Incubation of High-Potential Schools
Charter schools also have benefitted from nonprofit “incubators,” which provide talent pipelines, facilities support, start-up funding, strategic guidance, stakeholder engagement, and political advocacy—each desperately needed in the private school community.
In advocacy alone, incubators could ensure private schools are up to date on legislative changes that affect their sector—something critically important as more private school choice programs are created and expanded. Incubators can discuss such developments with school leaders, educate the public on the effects policy changes will have on their communities, and advocate for policies that promote the growth of high-quality schools.
Presently, many private schools do not have the staff capacity, or the budget, to engage in these types of marketing activities.
Charter school authorizers are public or nonprofit entities that hold their schools accountable for their performance and have the authority to close schools that fail to meet performance standards.
In one sense, this model would not be that new for private schools. Many already must be accountable to an external entity to maintain accreditation. This recommendation would expand that relationship to give the oversight body the ability to suspend a private school from participating in a public program for persistent poor performance. The authorizer model has each school negotiating an individualized performance contract, ensuring each school’s ability to tailor their educational services to the families they serve.
Smarick suggests that one type of authorizer might be particularly well suited to serving in an accountability role for private schools participating in public programs: an independent chartering board (ICB). ICBs are single-purpose entities (focusing solely on authorizing) and they are largely free of political meddling, helping ensure decisions are based on the proper factors.
“The Chartered Course”
As a final matter, Smarick notes that there is a glaring lack of collaboration among high-quality schools from the charter and private school sectors (though there are some exceptions, including initiatives undertaken by Schools That Can and the Philadelphia Schools Partnership). Both sectors, charter and private, would reap enormous benefit from strengthening trust, relationships, and smart collaboration as their profiles increase in the education industry and among the general public.
If the growth of school choice programs continues, then the demand for diverse, high-quality private schooling options will very likely rise as well. We must think creatively about how best to expand the supply of schooling options, both private and charter.
Private school leaders should consider using The Chartered Course as a road map to grow their networks and reach of their schools while meeting the needs, interests, and priorities of parents and their children.