Wednesday, March 25, 2015

When YES Means No

News broke today that YES Prep pulled out at the last minute from an agreement to take over a Memphis school under control of the Memphis Achievement School District. It will take a while to uncover all the lessons from this story, but one thing is obvious: we need more charter providers who are willing to take on the turnaround challenge.

CRPE first raised this issue in our 2010 and 2011 reports on Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). We worried about the growth capacity and financial sustainability of CMOs in general, but in particular we pointed out that there were less than a handful of CMOs that were willing to assume responsibility for a whole school where kids 1) enroll by default, not choice and 2) have high rates of disabilities, severe behavior issues, and mental health challenges.

I have no idea if these factors played into YES Prep’s decision to pull out in Memphis, but they surely have scared off other providers and will continue to do so if we don’t address the issue.

There’s much to be done. We need:

  • Additional public and private start-up funds for turnaround CMOs.
  • State and local funding and supports for special education, like what New Orleans has done.
  • Partnerships with districts to provide facilities for turnaround operators.
  • Incubators that can help develop local turnaround operators and local governing boards for out of state CMOs.
  • More CMOs willing to take the risk of taking on whole-school turnaround.

Authorizers and funders will also have to take a hard look at the accountability metrics they use. Moving students toward proficiency in a new school is a whole different ball of wax than in a turnaround. We need to set the incentives right. If through-the-roof proficiency is the only measure of success, we’re done. Charter providers will not take on tough challenges if their results are going to be compared to the results of folks with a much easier task.

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