Few Big-Name Charter Operators Opt for Federal 'Restart' Grants
Small operators, private companies, and nonprofits fill the gap
Some of the nation’s largest and best-known charter-management organizations have not jumped at the opportunity to “restart” schools with federal economic-stimulus money, but a wide range of smaller charter operators, private for-profit companies, and nonprofit groups has filled the gap.
Only about 5 percent of schools receiving School Improvement Grants as part of the federal economic-stimulus package chose to turn around schools with the widely touted restart model, the only option out of four that enables school districts to turn schools over to charter operators as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s $3.5 billion grant competition.
The small proportion of restarts is an indication that most school districts don’t want to take on the political and implementation challenges of shutting down low-performing schools and starting over, said Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for state advocacy and support for the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Charter schools in and of themselves are controversial in a number of places. Now you add to that, ‘We’re going to take a school that’s been here for 40 years that’s struggling and shut it down and turn it over to a charter-management organization,’ and you are amping up the controversy surrounding it.”
By contrast, districts have found the school improvement model known as “transformation” to be most feasible. With that option, the principal at the school but not the staff must be replaced. Districts also could choose the “turnaround” model, which requires the replacement of at least half the staff as well as the principal or they could close a school altogether and send its students to neighboring public schools.
A Wide Array
As it has turned out, though, the opportunity for charter operators to expand by putting to use federal funds to turn around schools represents only a blip in the federally funded effort to revamp low-performing schools rather than a major shift toward charter schooling.
The new managers—or managing consultants—trying to give a second life to some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools include a Latino advocacy organization, several small charter operators, a nonprofit started by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a private company co-founded by former New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, and the American subsidiary of a British-based consulting company.
Also on the list are Edison Learning, one of the more-established education-management organizations selected, and Pearson Education, best known as a textbook publisher.
Setting the Rules
The Education Department requires that a restart school be managed by a charter operator, charter-management organization, or education-management organization, but otherwise has few mandates for that model.
Federal guidance says the outside managers have to be selected through “a rigorous review process.” An education-management organization is defined as a for-profit or nonprofit organization that “provides ‘whole-school operation’ services.” The guidance also says that the restart school has to enroll any former student who wishes to attend.
The department in December released the names of 29 restart schools in 44 states; it hasn’t yet released information on turnarounds from the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, and New Hampshire.
In some cases, such as that of ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, charged with managing a nonunionized restart in Philadelphia, the outside managers are truly operating the reopened schools. In other cases, such as with a high school in Danville, Va., that has partnered with the Upper Saddle River, N.J.-based Pearson Education company, the outside manager has more of a consulting role. Cambridge Education, a Westwood, Mass.-based partnership, also has a consulting role with the Sussex County, Va., school district to restart two schools.
Cambridge Education is a subsidiary of the Cambridge, England-based Cambridge Education Group Ltd., which is owned by the Mott McDonald Group. It’s an international managing, engineering, and development consulting firm headquartered in Croydon, England, that had revenues of $1.6 billion last year.
While none of the outside managers selected is new to the field of education, at least five have operated only one school before—or none.
Gary J. Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, said in an e-mail that, generally speaking, “evidence on the success of these companies is largely self-reported.”
Pearson Education has a track record of consulting with schools but not operating whole schools. The New York city-based Global Partnership Schools—founded in 2008 by Mr. Crew and Manual J. Rivera, a former superintendent of New York’s Rochester district—hasn’t managed any schools as a company. But both Mr. Crew and Mr. Rivera have operated large urban districts. The Living Classrooms Foundation, known for giving children science experiences on ships and selected by the Baltimore school district as a partner for a restart, operates a single charter school, Crossroads School, in that city. Another Baltimore restart, Baltimore IT Academy, is being managed, in partnership with the district, by a new governing board headed by the principal of Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School in Hanover, Md., nine miles outside Baltimore. Two former board members of Chesapeake Science are members of the board for the new school.
“The lack of experience represented on the list is troublesome, but it’s hard to see how it could be avoided,” said Robin Lake, the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Turning around schools is “expensive and risky” for charter-management organizations, she said, because they don’t think they can get the same results in trying to improve an existing school in comparison with creating a strong school culture from scratch. “A lot of these turnaround schools also have kids with more-severe behavior problems and special education categories that many charter-management organizations are not used to dealing with,” she added.
Mr. Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said the grant process for restarts has been helpful for casting the net for new providers, such as the company founded by Mr. Crew and Mr. Rivera, both of whom he views as having considerable education expertise that could apply well to turnarounds. “Because we don’t have a lot of examples of success, you do have to look at different kinds of proposals,” Mr. Ziebarth said.
Choosing the Sideline
Officials of two large, well-known charter-management organizations—the Oakland, Calif.-based Aspire Public Schools and Houston-based Yes Prep Public Schools—said they didn’t get involved in the federal grant competition for any of the four turnaround models in part because it’s easier to be successful when parents and students have chosen their schools.
“You can build a school a lot quicker with new people around the table deciding what culture do we want,” said James Willcox, the chief executive officer of Aspire, which operates 30 charter schools in California. “When people don’t choose, there’s a higher likelihood that you spend a lot of time trying to agree on how we are going to do this work of educating our children and what does it mean when we’ve succeeded.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, to engage in turnaround schools, but the organization chose not to, at least for the current school year and the coming one, said Steve Mancini, KIPP’s public-affairs director. “We wanted to keep focused on where we have a track record,” he said.
Green Dot Public Schools, a charter-management organization in Los Angeles, also hasn’t gotten involved in turnarounds through the federal grant program.
But two charter-management organizations that Mr. Duncan has commended in public remarks have been selected to run restart schools—Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Schools, which has experience with turnarounds, is managing three restarts in that city, and the Chicago-based Academy for Urban School Leadership is running a restart there.
For at least two of the companies selected as outside managers for restarts—Global Partnership Schools and Cambridge Education—participation in the federal program represents a new growth phase.
Global Partnership Schools is managing Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, Conn., and Garrison Middle School in Baltimore as restarts, according to Joseph Garcia, the senior vice president for district and school services for the company.
“In both places, we have authority not only over the school-improvement-grant budget but the regular operating budget,” he said, noting that the schools use transportation and food services provided by their districts.
For Garrison Middle School, Global Partnership Schools recruited a new principal and replaced half the teaching staff, after requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs, said Valda Valbrun, a full-time consultant, or “education change leader,” the company provides the school. The revamped school has an extended day and provides extensive on-the-job coaching for teachers, she added.
Mr. Garcia said the company is also a managing partner for three schools that chose the federal turnaround option for their school improvement grants, and three that chose the transformation model in Pueblo, Colo. The company is also considering becoming a charter school operator, he said.
Cambridge Education, meanwhile, is the outside manager of four turnarounds using the transformation model in three Virginia counties, besides its involvement with the two restarts in Sussex County, said Trevor B. Yates, the vice president of Cambridge Education.
While Cambridge Education doesn’t have experience running whole schools in the United States, it successfully spearheaded the turnaround of a low-performing London district with 70 schools, Mr. Yates said. Also, he noted, the company has been doing business in the United States for eight years and is perhaps best known for its quality reviews of schools in New York City.
“Many of us have been living here for five years,” said Mr. Yates. “We are run as an American company. We are not an English company who has just come over here and said we can turn around schools.”
Vol. 30, Issue 22, Pages 1,14-15
Get more stories and free e-newsletters!