Big Issue, Broad Brush

ProPublica takes a look at educational management companies (EMOs). It’s worth reading but a basic analytic error at the top is going to leave readers with a distorted view of the landscape and the whole piece is more blunt force trauma than nuance, which seems like a missed opportunity.  The article, which focuses on for-profit management companies, notes that,  “Contrary to the idea of charters as small, locally run schools, approximately a third of them now rely on management companies to perform many of the most fundamental school services, such as hiring and firing staff, developing curricula and disciplining students.”

Roughly true (the figure may be a little less than that), but only about 13 percent (of the total number of charters nationally) are for-profit management companies.  The rest are non-profit networks of schools.  They’re not all great, either, but on average have a different performance picture.  And a network like Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Aspire, or Achievement First really has nothing in common (eg not tax status, not operating norms, not performance) with White Hat Management – an overall low-performing EMO highlighted by the story.  So it’s useful to differentiate.

To be clear, the point here is not that there are not quality problems (bonus double negative!) but rather that the landscape is more diverse both in terms of for-profit/non-profit and also performance than the story lets on.  For instance, the article highlights a lawsuit against National Heritage Academies but doesn’t note that some of the very best performing schools in Michigan (where NHA has a heavy presence) are NHA schools as well.

Bottom line: When it comes to charter schools, or all schools for that matter, look beneath the label. ProPublica does great work but it’s shame they didn’t do that here because this is an important issue.

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