Should CMOs really be in the business of ed reform?

Robb Snowe

This guest blog post is written by a former administrator at a charter management organization. Robb Snowe is a pen name.

Charter schools were born of the idea that, endowed with more autonomy and flexibility than traditional public schools, they would be free to experiment with different educational approaches, thereby serving as laboratories of innovation. Presumably, such experimentation would, at least in some cases, lead to better outcomes. The jury is still out on whether charter schools are, on the whole, “better” than district schools, but there is no question that some charters significantly outperform their district counterparts (and, of course, others compare much less favorably).

One could argue that CMOs are inherently involved in the business of “reform.”

To the extent that high-performing charter management organizations (CMOs) scale up by continuing to add schools, one could argue that they are inherently involved in the business of “reform.” After all, replicating a model that is different and, in some senses, “better” than the district model necessarily alters the educational landscape in a district, city, state, etc. The imprimatur might not have come from above (i.e., from government), but that doesn’t make it any less transformative.

Some CMOs, such as the Success Academies in New York, purport to make “reform” a more explicit part of their agendas. World-class schools are great, they argue, but in order to really make a difference, these CMOs believe they must get down into the trenches and actively seek to change policy themselves. There aren’t many of these advocacy driven CMOs—KIPP is the other prominent example—but let’s say the trend grows stronger and more spring up across the country. Would this be a positive development? On the one hand, their growth would likely be applauded by ed reformers: the more the merrier, and nothing helps change policy quite like an increasing number of voices shouting in unison. Yet, the premise that CMOs can—or should—be effective advocacy vehicles rests atop two assumptions of questionable validity: first, that CMOs and ed reformers share the same agenda; and, second, that schools can actually engage in politics while simultaneously delivering exceptional educational opportunities.

The agenda of the advocacy-driven CMO (we’ll call them “ADCs”) is certain to, at times, include items that are beneficial to the charter sector on the whole. For example, all NYC charters want a mayor who will continue the favorable policies of the Bloomberg administration, so to the extent that an ADC engages in electoral politics with this end in mind, then the entire sector is likely to, at least passively, benefit from these efforts. On the other hand, an ADC that is concerned primarily with growth, such as Success Academy, is likely to focus much of its advocacy on more specific issues like siting reform and colocation, which do not necessarily impact independent charter operators or their patrons. These issues also happen to be the most politically flammable, pitting public school families against charter school families, and have, in New York at least, cast a negative shadow over the entire charter sector. Thus, at least in certain circumstances, the agendas of ADCs may conflict with those of other charters.

Second, the current tenor of the education reform debate is such that “pro charter” is often equated with “anti district,” and being perceived as a vocal enemy of the status quo has clear downsides. For one, the pro-district lobby (namely, the teacher unions) is powerful and it can and will seek to impede or rollback the progress of charters whenever possible. This battle plays out in government, among policymakers, and on the streets among consumers (i.e., parents).

For an entity whose purported primary purpose is to educate children, the costs of fighting the war of public opinion can be prohibitive.

As any advocacy organization knows, public opinion is a potent weapon in the arsenal of change and failure to control—or at least contain—this opinion can be detrimental to a cause. Moreover, simply protecting a previously held perception can be incredibly costly (in terms of both dollars and man power); actively changing one can be even more expensive. For an entity engaged purely in advocacy, these costs are simply part of doing business. But for an entity whose purported primary purpose is to educate children, the costs of fighting the war of public opinion can be prohibitive. Or, perhaps, should be.

Insofar as an ADC’s capital—political or otherwise—is increasingly spent on PR, the organization is no longer necessarily serving its primary purpose: to educate and to innovate.

At the moment, the ADC is still in its relative infancy (and most independent charters and CMOs steer clear of politics), so no case study exists to say that a CMO’s engagement in advocacy necessarily undermines its educational performance. Yet, the situation in New York City, for example, should at least give ADCs pause. The ed-reform movement in NYC has been strong and continues to grow, as evidenced by the creation of organizations like StudentsFirst NY (Eva Moskowtiz, CEO of the Success Academies, sits on the board) and the recent “Parents for Progress” rally, which brought together thousands of the NYC’s charter school families (and was supported by the city’s large CMOs, including both Success and KIPP).

At the same time, or maybe as a result, the fight over the public’s perception of charters has been a brutal one. Colocation hearings bring out venomous charter opponents, and the press is more likely to highlight these fights than to cover the great educational results some charters are achieving. Moreover, as the city’s ADCs grow, the attacks against them grow louder and more sustained. Additionally (consequently?), New York’s charter authorizers have, of late, shown signs of weakening in their support for the sector (although SUNY did just approve six new charters for Success). To be sure, this isn’t solely a function of aggressive ADCs like Success, but the growth strategy alone of some of NYC’s CMOs—add as many schools as possible before the end of the Bloomberg administration—appears to be enough to cause the authorizers to balk.

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