Private Schools Must Explore Unchartered Territory

The Chartered Course by Andy Smarick continues an important discussion focused on growing and developing the private school market in America. It is a welcome shift from the “save our schools” mentality to one of growth and new ideas. It is as if there is finally a “re-imaging”’ of the private school market beginning in the country.

There are many lessons private schools can learn from the explosion of charter schools nationwide. Having run the largest national network of private schools – the Cristo Rey Network – I agree with much of Andy’s article.

But three elements in particular are important to consider regarding the formation of networks in the private school market.

1. A national network has many more challenges than a local or even a regional network. 

The Cristo Rey Network knows this firsthand. This is also true in the charter space. Most charter networks are local or regional and, as they expand nationally, they lose some of their ability to drive quality and growth (see Rocketship Education’s challenges in Milwaukee, the Noble Network’s decision to stay in Chicago, and KIPP’s varied results in Chicago alone).

A national network needs extensive resources to provide the supports that Andy describes: recruitment, professional development, and back-office support look very differently in a national network than in a local network.

2. But, just because a network is local doesn’t guarantee success, particularly for school leadership.

A few private school management organizations have started locally in prominent cities (Washington, D.C., and San Antonio)—and failed. The reason for these failures are primarily financial, but, in discussions in both communities, the decision to keep much of the prior leadership teams in place contributed to the demise of both networks.

When a city or community considers adopting the network model, it should seriously consider a new management team. Simply layering a network onto a group of struggling schools will not alone solve the problem.

3. Both points lead to another important consideration when looking at network models: the level of control the networks will have over the schools. 

Will future private school networks be tightly controlled organizations in which the network has the ability to hire and fire, say, school leaders (a likely outcome of seeking high-quality results) or will it be a looser affiliation of schools (in which school leaders have more autonomy, but there is less emphasis on quality control from the top)?

With tighter control, networks will have a more difficult time getting local buy-in and ownership of individual schools—and we all know local control plays a big role in education. The looser model will enable schools to grow more quickly and serve more kids, but levels of educational outcomes will likely vary—is that something state leaders will tolerate?

Moving Forward

In addressing those points regarding the school network structure, private school leaders need to consider the role of private school choice programs. In doing so, leaders should pay particular attention to eligibility and funding. For example, they should ask:

  1. Is a school choice program’s eligibility pool large enough to give more parents access to private schools? If such an empowered group began choosing private schools, their children’s funding could give quality schools a greater ability to build a network system.
  2. Does a school choice program’s per-student funding give parents real purchasing power? Higher per-student funding in the charter sector—though still not equal with the traditional public school sector—gives successful charters the resources necessary to expand and reach more families.

Ultimately, all of this gets to one critical conclusion: Private schools must set their sights on the future. The Chartered Course allows private school leaders to do exactly that. It’s time we venture into much-needed unchartered territory.