School Choice & Charters

Scholar Advocates ‘Brand Name’ Charter School Networks

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 19, 2004 3 min read
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Changes in charter school regulations and funding formulas could make it more feasible for “brand name” networks of the independent public schools to expand, according to a paper commissioned by the Brookings Institution and discussed at an annual conference here last week.

Such systems of schools, overseen by organizations such as the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. and guided by nonprofit models like the KIPP Academies, show promise in raising student achievement, said Steven F. Wilson, a senior fellow at the Center for Business and Government at Harvard University who wrote the paper.

But such systems face challenges in finding affordable facilities, recruiting strong leaders, and maintaining financial stability, he told the select gathering of about 75 scholars and federal education officials.

The papers will be published in a single volume and will be available for purchase early next year from the Brookings Institution.

“In principle, the rigors of private oversight, the statutory prerogatives of charter schools, a powerful shared school design, and principals who are instructional leaders should yield a potent formula for creating effective new schools,” the paper says. “But flaws in the organizations’ strategies, political hostility, and, most importantly, defects in regulation have thwarted branded school organizations, diverted the attention of their executives from program implementation, and attenuated educational outcomes.”

Evidence of Effectiveness?

Charter school laws, which are in effect in more than 40 states, tend to encourage the formation of single schools, each with its own board. As a result, Mr. Wilson said, private organizations seeking to establish networks of the publicly financed schools based on similar, proven principles must instead act as consultants to charter school entrepreneurs. Thus, implementation can vary by location, and oversight is more complex.

If the networks could hold charters directly, they could more readily scale up their programs and achieve considerable gains in student achievement, particularly in urban areas, where there are large numbers of disadvantaged children, Mr. Wilson argued.

“If these educational management organizations were able to engage more directly in the delivery of education, their results would be stronger,” he maintained. His analysis of data on the Edison model, for example, shows students are achieving at greater rates than their peers in similar public schools, he said.

Mr. Wilson was one of more than a dozen scholars invited to prepare papers for the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy annual conference, this year with the theme “Hopeful Signs of Change in American Education.” Other presentations addressed standards and accountability, the promise of a new generation of educational research, and evidence-based reading policy.

Despite the potential of charter networks, Mr. Wilson said, the organizations have made mistakes. They’ve generally expanded too quickly, and they’ve had trouble setting and meeting reasonable expectations, adapting to multistate regulations and testing systems, and establishing relationships with local school boards.

They also lack the empirical research necessary to prove their effectiveness, Mr. Wilson said.

‘Children on the Market’

Their expansion may be further hindered, some participants added, because of the debates surrounding school choice programs and the sensitive ethical issues associated with running schools for profit.

Michael W. Apple, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of WisconsinMadison, said the public has a general aversion to the idea that a company can make a profit on the schooling of children.

“There are many people ... who are opposed to placing children on the market,” he said.

Edison Schools, based in New York City and the largest and most controversial of the organizations Mr. Wilson studied, manages schools, some of them charters, in 22 states and the District of Columbia, serving some 80,000 students.

The KIPP, or Knowledge Is Power Program, academies got their start in New York City’s South Bronx and in Houston in 1995. The organization expanded nationally in 2000 and now claims 31 schools in 13 states.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Scholar Advocates ‘Brand Name’ Charter School Networks

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