Charter Schools Make Smart Use of Strategic Alliances and Restructuring
By Makiyah Moody
Since the creation of the first charter school in Minnesota in 1992, a new path was forged for public education. Promising greater accountability in exchange for greater autonomy, charter schools grew across the country. There are now an estimated 6,800 public charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia serving approximately 3 million students. While each state has a unique charter law, similarities exist that undergird charter schools as one option on the school choice menu.
Charter schools have generally been born out of the vision of a founding team consisting of individuals who bring a deep commitment to the community they’ll serve and a particular approach to educating students. It’s a highly personal undertaking — so how could collaboration among charter schools strengthen the sector when so many exist due to the independent ideas and investments of a few?
Back in 2008, six KIPP schools in California’s Bay Area decided to merge into one regional hub to “have a permanent organization to meet the bulk of their needs and facilitate the centralizing of efficiencies and the sharing of best practices.” With this merger, the new entity, KIPP Bay Area Schools, was able to leverage economies of scale, reduce staffing redundancies, centralize business operations and teacher recruitment, and save money through shared services such as food vendors, insurance, and tech support. This collaboration among KIPP’s Bay Area schools was prompted by the KIPP Foundation’s encouragement toward sustainability.
I predict mergers in the charter sector will become more prevalent over the next three to five years, as the political landscape and financial climate continues to change. However, mergers are not the only option.
The NET Charter High School is a New Orleans-based alternative high school with a mission to provide struggling high school students with the skills, confidence, and experiences necessary to succeed in the education and career paths of their choice. The NET partners with FirstLine Schools, a charter management organization with five schools, as a vendor for back office finance and accounting. The benefits from this arrangement are mutual: FirstLine Schools generates revenue for its services while not negatively impacting its own operations, and The NET benefits by not having to pay for a fully-loaded finance office.
“Our partnership with The NET helps us fulfill our broader mission of helping support the creation of great open admissions schools for all students in New Orleans. At the same time, it also helps us have even better economies of scale with our back office services for schools,” says Jay Altman, CEO of FirstLine Schools. Elizabeth Ostberg, principal of The NET, feels similarly. “The partnership is huge for us. One thing I appreciate most is that it gives us access to greater depth of expertise than a little school like us would be able to hire for on our own.” With 78 charter schools operating in New Orleans during the 2015-16 academic year and competing for finite resources, administrative consolidation allows for the possibility of doing more with less.
This African proverb is a favorite at La Piana Consulting: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It sums up the benefit of collaboration and emphasizes that partnerships can accelerate impact.
Suggested resources for charter schools exploring collaboration include:
Which Comes First, the Partnership or the Plan?
The Dark Side of Collaboration
Power in Numbers: Joining Forces to Create a Nonprofit Network