The High-Performing Charter Sector Will Not Scale


How’s that for click bait.

Here’s my take on three biggest weakness of the high-performing charter sector, and why the high-perfoming charter sector won’t scale unless these weakness are overcome.

#1: Teacher Pipelines

As charter sectors scale, they need more teachers. A simple rule of thumb for sizing teacher need is: total students in charter schools divided by 18 times .25.

So let’s take a school system with 100,000 students. At 10% market share, the charter sector needs ~140 teachers a year.

At 90% market share, the charter sector needs ~1250 teachers a year.

That’s a big difference.

Right now, the pipelines many charters rely on (TFA, TNTP, residencies, etc.) have not demonstrated the potential to scale in a cost effective manner.

Charters will only be able to scale if other pipelines are developed.

My current opinion is that there is only one way to scale cost effective pipelines: train future teachers when they are in college and are willing to pay tuition.

If I were a funder, I would invest heavily in organizations that were attempting to develop educators while they are still in college.

#2 Family Organizing

Charter schools have a built in constituency: their families. Given all the political obstacles preventing charter school growth, organizing families seems like an obvious solution to scaling the sector.

Right now, most charter schools are terrible at empowering their families to be effective advocates for educational excellence and equity.

If this does not change, high-performing charters will grow at significantly slower rate.

#3 New School Incubation

Most of the nation’s highest performing charter management organizations started off in the same way: a great entrepreneur launched a single school.

Right now, far little too attention is paid to new operator creation. There’s only a couple of organizations that incubate schools at a national level; and city based incubators vary significantly in quality.

My current thinking is this: what TFA did for the status of teaching, we need to do for the status of launching charter schools. The nation’s most talented entrepreneurs should be launching charter schools. Imagine if 10-20% of the nation’s top business school students applied to charter incubators after graduation. Students in this country would be able to attend so many more awesome schools.

In Sum

It’s worth noting that ten years ago this list would have been much longer. The sector is maturing in numerous ways.

Moreover, while I think funders should invest in the above areas, they should definitely not stop investing in all the current supports that are enabling high-performing charter growth.

But, ultimately, if we don’t solve these three issues, the high-performing charter sector’s growth will stall, and millions of children will be denied the rich educational opportunities they deserve.

Lastly, drop a note in the comments if you think I’m missing any big rocks. I’m sure that I am.

Conflict note: I have worked, will work, or am working with organizations on all the above issues. You can take that as a sign that I really believe that these issues need to be solved, or that I’m making all this stuff up in an effort to divert funds to clients.

7 thoughts on “The High-Performing Charter Sector Will Not Scale

  1. Matt Niksch (@mniksch)

    For 1:
    We’ll have around 100 college graduates this year (growing exponentially), many of whom will be great candidates for this program–great college results and passionate believers and models of our mission.

    For 2:
    (Despite the story at the top, looks like they did just appoint an executive director)
    Newer, but promising and parent led

    For 3:
    As long as you provide a lot of principal autonomy, new operators shouldn’t have to make up everything about their new school from scratch. We launched two new high schools this year (and now have about 10% of all public high school students in the city.) One is focused on Engineering for all 4 years while the other is partnering with Phillips Exeter Academy to replicate their “Harkness” method for Socratic instruction. We replicate the model for school culture, but are very loose on the academic approach.

    You might have added a #4: College Results, which are far from where all of us want them to be, but happy to report we’re working hard on that too. Would love to have you swing by and visit next time you’re in Chicago.

    1. nkingsl

      Thanks, Matt – the alumni as teachers piece is awesome, and I pipeline I overlooked….

      Definitely would love to check out college work next time I’m in the area.

      Hope you’re well!

  2. Joe Connor

    1. Teacher Pipeline

    I think Matt is right in identifying another avenue of teacher recruitment, charter school alumni. When I worked at KIPP, alumni were just starting to come back and work at the schools. This has happened mainly at two of the earliest cities, KIPP Houston and KIPP NYC. Last I heard there were over 60 alumni working for KIPP Houston. With the increase in KIPP college enrollment of alumni, this could be a huge future avenue for teacher recruitment.

    2. Family Organizing

    Rocketship and Success Acadmey are hands down the two best charter school networks at this. Success did it because of necessity with Bill de Blasio’s election and subsequent targeting of their organization. Rocketship has done it with an intentional internal program that identifies 10 parents at each school each year that they believe can become forceful advocates. Karen Martinez, is an excellent example of what can happen if a parent is given training and allowed to advocate for choice.

    Finally I would add as a weakness:

    4. Access to Capital Markets

    I read recently said that since 1970 more than 200,000 nonprofits have opened in the US, but only 144 of them have reached $50 million in annual revenue (I think it in a Stanford journal). Basic premise: It is difficult to scale if you are a nonprofit. A large part of this is access to capital.

    It is difficult to raise capital for nonprofits for several reasons. First, foundations and donors often act irrational or not in the best interests of the nonprofit. Some foundations restrict the number of years they provide support. Others will only allocate money if the nonprofit agrees to grow in a certain geographic location. Second, the lack of return limits the amount of money available. Ultimately there is a limited portion of money available for philanthropy, less still for education, a smaller subset available for K-12 education and an even smaller subset that is available for the charter sector. Organizations are all competing for the same money, which does not dramatically grow year after year. This can also result in inefficiencies where some nonprofits devote disproportionate resources to continued funding, rather than their mission.

    There are fixes for this. Develop diverse sources of funding, set clear goals to limit mission creep and only accept funds with little to no strings attached.

    However I wonder if a better solution would be a network of for profit charter providers or for profit private schools to be allowed to operate. I know in the past this has been disastrous (Edison in Philadelphia), but the for profit organizations have access to large sources of capital because of the expectation of return. With capital the org can then scale and grow more quickly. This is a simplistic view, but I think the underlying premise is intriguing. I often think about how an org like Bridge International Academies could work here in the US.

    Where am I wrong in this? What am I missing?

    1. nkingsl

      Per your last point, I’ve also been worried about connection between non-profits and lack of scaling. Access to capital is one part (though Charter School Growth Fund does much work here), but it’s also about incentives. CEO’s and MGMT teams don’t financially benefit much from scaling, so we’re relying mostly on good will….

      However, most for-profits I’ve seen haven’t been launched by great MGMT teams, mostly because I think the best educators are more culturally comfortable in non-profits…

      I think it would be great if someone at Uncommon / Success level launched a for-profit charter chain to push on these issues…

  3. Pingback: What is the Limiting Factor in New Charter Operator Creation? | relinquishment

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