Pope Francis’ School Visit Offers a Look Inside the New Field of PSMOs

Pope Francis’ visit to New York City later this week includes a stop at Our Lady Queen of Angels School, a K-8 school serving predominately low-income black and Hispanic students in Harlem and the South Bronx. This visit is an historic moment for the students, families, and staff of Our Lady Queen of Angels. But it is also a notable moment for the thousands of Catholic and private schools that serve disadvantaged students in urban centers across the country and provides a peek into a fledgling field—private school management organizations (PSMOs).

In a forthcoming report, Juliet Squire, Andy Smarick, and I define PSMOs as independent entities that operate or help operate three or more private schools. Our Lady Queen of Angels School is one of six schools managed by a PSMO in our analysis: Partnership Schools. Through an 11-year agreement with the Archdiocese of New York, Partnership Schools provides the educational, administrative, and operational services to the six schools in its portfolio.

Partnership Schools is one example of what we call a “Redemptive PSMO.” Other Redemptive PSMOs include the Faith in the Future Foundation and Independence Mission Schools in Philadelphia; Jubilee Schools in Memphis; Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden, New Jersey; and Drexel Schools in San Jose, California.

Like Partnership Schools, Redemptive PSMOs generally operate a portfolio of Catholic schools located in a single city. With variations between them, these organizations tend to align along five key dimensions:

  • They were created to operate existing, Catholic parochial schools
  • While some Redemptive PSMOs are interested in opening new schools in the long term, their first priority is to achieve financial sustainability of existing schools
  • They rely primarily on philanthropy and tuition for funding
  • They are typically either operated by a church (in arrangements similar to skunk-works operations in corporate firms) or are affiliated with a church (in arrangements where the PSMO might oversee day-to-day operations but the church oversees religious education)
  • They are typically operationally centralized and in varying stages of pursuing greater academic centralization

There are other types of PSMOs, as well. “Expansion PSMOs” look most similar to the CMO networks found in the public sector. They open new-start schools, have plans to open more, are funded primarily through either tuition or public programs, are independent of religious institutions, and generally have high degrees of both academic and operational centralization. “Hybrid PSMOs” share some characteristics with both Redemptive and Expansion PSMOs but have undertaken approaches that distinguish them in important ways.

All together, these three PSMO types serve 42,000 students in 134 schools. They are nascent and little-studied, but they have some real potential to reinvigorate the urban private school sector. Check back here or here for our report in the next few weeks. This report is the first in the field and more remains to be done, but we hope that education researchers, analysts, philanthropists, and policymakers are as intrigued as we are about the potential of PSMOs to help create more high-quality seats for kids.