Guest blogger Robin Lake is associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In this post, she responds to “Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector,” a Public Impact-authored policy brief co-released yesterday by Fordham’s Ohio team and CEE-Trust.
Public Impact’s new paper on incubators is a well-needed addition to the conversation about scaling high-quality charter schools. I’ve been saying for some time that CMOs, no matter how good, cannot be the charter sector’s sole answer to new school supply.
For the past five years, most of the private philanthropy to support new charter schools has gone to CMOs and the feds have increasingly targeted start-up funding to replication. But CMOs are an expensive path to scale and one that is yielding uneven quality. Importantly, CMOs tend to locate in major urban areas with a strong TFA presence and high per-pupil funding. For cities like Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee, all the recruiting in the world is unlikely to attract respected CMOs like Aspire or Achievement First. Also problematic is the fact that many talented would-be charter founders want nothing to do with large, highly centralized, and sometimes bureaucratic CMOs. We need alternatives to CMOs that recognize these realities and create scale and replication options for small cities and entrepreneurial leaders.
To be clear, the overall quality of standalone charter schools has been nothing to write home about. Founders of “mom and pop” charter schools tend to lack the clear and compelling vision of high performance that characterizes the best CMOs. To be more reliably successful, standalones need help. That’s where incubators come in. These local organizations are designed to bring the best of CMO training and support to aspiring charter starters without a lifetime commitment to centralized management and associated costs and organizational structures.
CRPE has been writing about incubation since 2000. We looked at successful business incubators and suggested how the same concept might work in education. The Public Impact paper takes this concept further and gives policymakers ideas for funding incubators and creating the right policy conditions to make them work well. The best suggestion I saw for funding was to redirect some SIG money to support incubation. The comparative ROI there would be tremendous.
As a caution, not all incubators have been successful. One in Dayton flopped several years ago because charter schools in Ohio didn’t have a lot of incentive to listen to the incubator staff. And those who run CMOs are dubious that an incubator, which doesn’t have direct control over the schools it spawns, could produce high-quality schools consistently. But the Mind Trust, NSNO, 4.0 Schools, Get Smart Schools, and others are showing that, when paired with a strong authorizing environment, incubators can be extremely effective complements to scale-up efforts nationwide.