Awhile back I posted that lack of new operator supply is a major threat to scaling the high-performing charter sector.
I continue to mull this over. Over the past week, I’ve had two conversations on the issue. Some reflections below.
Last year, about 400 new charter schools opened. The data regarding the breakdown of new start vs. CMO expansion is not yet available.
A few years before that, about 15% of total growth came from new operators (the rest came from replication).
Assuming this ratio has roughly held, we can assume that about 60 of the 400 charter schools that opened last year came from new starts.
My gut reaction is that 60 new operators being created in one year is far below optimal potential capacity.
What is causing this under-capacity? Some guesses:
1. Lack of talented founders, especially with regards to instructional leadership capacity
Both of the people I talked to point to this as the main culprit. They noted that a lot needs to happen between the 3rd or 4th year of teaching (when many entrepreneurial type folks leave the classroom) and when someone is actually ready to launch a school.
In my experience, I’d say, on average, most people aren’t ready to launch a school until the age of 30 or so. So if you assume someone teaches for four years (from age 22-26) and could begin an incubation program at 29 or 30, what happens to them in these intervening 3-4 years?
Currently, no program (outside of CMOs) exists with the specific aim of guiding potential founders through these years. It is quite possible that we’re losing folks that could become founders because they are not supported during these years.
2. Lack of Incubators
Not many cities have incubators (organizations that run 1-2 year fellowships to prepare a founder to launch a school). And those that do exist are of mixed quality. And there is really only one national incubation program (Building Excellent Schools).
You could imagine that increasing the number of incubators would both increase the quantity and quality of new start-ups, especially if progress was made on issue #1.
3. Lack of Funds
I’m skeptical that this is true in charter friendly markets, where philanthropy tends to find its way into supporting great entrepreneurs. But this could surely be a factor in smaller markets. On average, a start-up probably needs around 500K to get off the ground, and this could be a limiting factor in some cities.
4. Culture and Status
This is a little more amorphous, but it’s unclear to me that we’ve made launching a charter schools as high status of a profession as it should be. Whatever you think of TFA, it has definitely changed the game for at least entering the teaching profession (though perhaps not staying in it). Nationally, we happen to be in a moment where being an entrepreneur / working at a start-up is one of the highest status things you can do. I often wonder: what would it take to make this true for launching a charter school?
What Am I Missing?
Let me know your thoughts. This is an important problem that needs to be solved.
If folks have great solutions, I’d be happy to try and play a part in making them come to fruition.