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Amistad Academy is a bright shining star in public school reform. Founded in 1999 in a renovated warehouse in a blighted New Haven, Connecticut, neighborhood by a group of Yale law school students, the 289-student charter school has won the praise of the last two federal education secretaries. Educators throughout the country have traveled to the middle school to study its success with students who have endured the ravages of urban poverty—arguably the nation's toughest educational challenge. And Amistad's strong academic performance has led the school's founders to create a nonprofit organization called Achievement First that is attempting to build a network of 30 charter schools like Amistad in three Connecticut cities and Brooklyn, New York.
Achieving this success has been difficult—and expensive. Over a quarter of the school's annual revenue-nearly $1.4 million, or $4,200 per student in 2008–09—comes from private donations rather than public funding. To generate this additional revenue Amistad relies on an ambitious fundraising network led by two well-connected New Havenites who have served on the board of trustees of elite local private schools like Hopkins Grammar and Choate Rosemary Hall, and who have helped ensure that Amistad's many visitors include a steady stream of well-heeled donors from Greenwich, New Canaan, Westport, and other affluent Connecticut enclaves.
Amistad and Achievement First are part of an ambitious movement in American education to educate large numbers of impoverished students to higher standards than public schools traditionally have sought for them. Over the past decade, nearly four dozen new nonprofit enterprises known as charter management organizations, or CMOs, have set to work alongside Achievement First to replicate the nation's best urban charter schools, the publicly funded but independently operated schools that emerged on the reform landscape in the early 1990s. There are an estimated 4,600 charter schools serving some 1.4 million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia today.
Most charter schools haven't performed as well as Amistad, and there is a lively ongoing debate about quality and effectiveness in the charter school sector. But the most well-known of the new nonprofit charter school networks, organizations with names like Aspire Public Schools, Uncommon Schools, and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) have produced compelling results, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropy and congratulatory coverage in the national media—on "60 Minutes" and the "Oprah Winfrey Show," in the New York Times Magazine and Esquire, in nearly every major daily newspaper, and in a spate of new books.
As a result, state and national leaders increasingly see leading CMOs as an important part of their larger plans for educational reform in the toughest educational environments. KIPP stepped in to build new schools in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. Public officials in Los Angeles recently voted to allow CMOs and other organizations to bid to run 50 newly created schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has explicitly cited a number of leading CMOs in describing his plans to fix the 5,000 worst schools in America and has made CMOs eligible for unprecedented access to federal dollars.
Many CMO leaders have similarly large ambitions for the movement, building charter school networks in pursuit of a solution to the slow pace of improvement in traditional public schools and in response to the uninspired performance of many of the nation's individual charter schools. They've sought to create "proof points," evidence that large numbers of disadvantaged students can achieve at sharply higher levels than most do now. They also want to put enough competitive pressure on traditional public school systems to cause them to embrace transformative reforms.
But in the decade since they first emerged, CMOs have expanded more slowly and required more resources than they had hoped. The extraordinary demands of educating disadvantaged students to higher standards, the challenges of attracting the talent required to do that work, the burden of finding and financing facilities, and often-aggressive opposition from the traditional public education system have made the trifecta of scale, quality, and financial sustainability hard to hit.
This report traces the history of a number of leading CMOs, showing how they have grown, how they have succeeded, and where they have fallen short. It documents a host of budgetary and regulatory barriers that local, state, and national policymakers will need to address if CMOs are to fulfill the expectations that are increasingly being thrust upon them. It also suggests that achieving the core mission that unites all leading CMOs—providing a great education to the most disadvantaged students—requires extraordinary levels of organizational, financial, and human resources. This lesson has important implications not just for the charter school movement, but for public education as a whole.