Tag Archives: PSMOs

Leaders of Religious Private School Management Organizations Have New Complexities to Navigate

Private school management organizations (PSMOs) can learn a lot from the challenges and successes of charter school management organizations (CMOs) over the last couple of decades. However, one element crucial to many private schools’ missions—their religious orientation—creates a new and different set of challenges for PSMOs to navigate as they grow and expand.

As described in our recent paper, the degree of separation from a religious institution is a key factor differentiating existing PSMOs. Some PSMOs, like Blyth-Templeton and Thales Academy, are nonsectarian and therefore function very similarly to CMOs, entirely separate from any religious organizations.

But the vast majority of PSMOs in our study—12 of the 14—are religiously affiliated. Eight of the 12 PSMOs operate Catholic schools. To be considered Catholic schools, the local Bishop must formally recognize them as such, and all Catholic schools are governed by Canon law. Most are directly run by either an individual parish (parochial schools) or by the local diocese (diocesan schools). Historically, pastors have had a great deal of responsibility for running schools, overseeing not only the religious education but also the hiring of the principal and teachers, the school facility, the budget, managing enrollment, and more. When a PSMO takes over the operation of a Catholic school, however, it means a redistribution of these responsibilities and a new relationship between the pastor, parish, church community, school staff, and PSMO leaders. (For a fuller explanation of the history and governance of Catholic schools, see this guidebook.)

The Catholic PSMOs in our study have approached this challenge in a number of ways. Some, like the San Jose Drexel Schools and the Jubilee Schools in Memphis, are what we call “church-operated” PSMOs. Much like “skunk works” operations within large firms where a small group of people pursues a new idea outside of routine organizational procedures, church-operated PSMOs are separate offices embedded within the hierarchy of their local diocese. Although the diocese remains responsible for the success or failure of the schools, the PSMOs’ offices have been given considerable flexibility around the operations of a subset of schools. For example, the Jubilee Schools have a longer school day and year-round school calendar, different from the other schools in the diocese.

Other Catholic PSMOs have embraced what we call a “church-affiliated” model. These networks are all separate 501(c)(3) organizations that, through a management agreement with the local diocese, assumed operational control of a subset of the diocese’s schools. The nuances of these agreements—and their origins—vary significantly from PSMO to PSMO, and are prime fodder for additional study. But even just the basics that we cover in our paper suggest interesting divergence. For example, the Archdiocese of New York’s 2010 Strategic Plan laid out a plan for moving toward a regionalized governance structure that included the creation of a set of six inner-city elementary schools to be managed by a local nonprofit organization, The Partnership for Inner-city Education (PNYC). Through an 11-year agreement with the Archdiocese, PNYC has broad authority over the budgets, finances, operations, and academic programming of the six schools. As part of its five-year agreement with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Faith in the Future (FIF) PSMO agreed to underwrite the deficits of the 17 high schools and four special education schools over which it gained operational control.

The Notre Dame ACE Academies (NDAA) has a considerably different model: Rather than assuming operational control of a set of schools in one particular geography, NDAA partners with local dioceses in multiple geographies to create a new, separate board to govern a subset of schools. NDAA provides a couple of board members and a school principal. Unlike the agreements forged by PNYC or FIF, under the NDAA model parishes continue to oversee and operate each school. The new board and principal allow NDAA to play a key role in school operations such as school culture, governance, finance, instruction, and family and community engagement.

Cristo Rey, on the other hand, has no such agreement with a diocese. Instead, its model is much closer to that of nonsectarian PSMOs or even CMOs. All of Cristo Rey’s schools are independent Catholic schools sponsored by religious orders rather than affiliated with a particular parish. Per Canon law, all of the network’s schools are formally recognized as Catholic by the local Bishop. But beyond that, there is no formal relationship between the schools and the diocese (although many schools do have close, voluntary relationships with the various orders that sponsor them).

The intricacies of Catholic PSMOs’ relationships with their local dioceses and the specifics of the various management agreements are important points for additional research. Not only is the field of PSMOs relatively new and burgeoning, but navigating relationships with religious institutions is something not paralleled in the public school sector. The Catholic PSMOs in this study have begun to pave new roads for future PSMOs. Their successes and challenges and ongoing navigation of a bureaucracy as complex and time-honored as the Catholic Church—all while respecting the history, faith, values, customs, and traditions of the Church and its local parishes, priests, and communities—must not be overlooked.

New Private School Management Organizations Come in Different Shapes and Sizes

Charter management organizations (CMOs) have driven much of the growth in quality charter school options in the public sector. An emerging group of private school management organizations (PSMOs) has the potential to do the same in the private sector.

In a paper released this morning, Juliet Squire, Andy Smarick, and I undertake what we believe to be the first-ever study of PSMOs. Through research and interviews with the leaders of 14 existing PSMOs—collectively operating 134 schools serving 42,000 kids—we explore the nature of PSMOs, how existing PSMOs are similar to and different from one another, and what it will take to support the growth of high-quality private school networks.

We define PSMOs as independent entities that operate or help operate three or more private schools. This means that PSMOs (1) are neither governmental agencies nor embedded within a church hierarchy; (2) directly operate or support the operation of schools including hiring staff, procuring supplies, providing back-office supports, and more; and (3) run at least three private schools.

Through our research we identified five key factors that differentiate the PSMOs in our study:

  • Whether they operate new or existing schools: Similar to CMOs, some PSMOs operate “takeover” or “turnaround” schools while others open new schools.
  • The type of growth they are pursuing: In some cases networks are looking for ways to help schools make their financial ends meet, usually through growing enrollment in existing schools. We call this “sustainability” growth. Other PSMOs plan to add more high-quality seats by opening new schools. We call this “footprint” growth.
  • Their funding models: Most commonly, PSMOs rely on tuition, philanthropy, public programs, or a blend of those three sources.
  • Their degree of independence from a religious institution: PSMOs often operate faith-based schools and in some cases have to navigate complex church hierarchies. We classify PSMOs into three categories: church-operated PSMOs, which are operated by an office or body within the church but are separate from the traditional reporting structure of the church; church-affiliated PSMOs, which are separate 501(c)(3) organizations that manage a subset of schools through a negotiated contract with the church; and independent PSMOs, which are fully independent of a religious institution.
  • Their degree of operational and academic centralization: We sought to understand whether the PSMO central office or individual schools are responsible for decisions related to securing facilities, curriculum, classroom materials, scheduling, and hiring teachers and other school-based staff.

Using these five dimensions we categorized the PSMOs in our study into three types:

  1. Redemptive Networks generally operate existing schools, have a sustainability-focused growth mindset, are either church-operated or church-affiliated, and are academically decentralized but operationally centralized. These networks typically rely on either philanthropy or family-paid tuition to support the operating costs of the schools in their portfolios. Six networks—the Catholic Partnership Schools, Faith in the Future, Independence Mission Schools, Jubilee Schools, Partnership Schools, and the San Jose Drexel Schools—fit in this category.
  1. Expansion Networks look most similar to the CMOs found in the public sector. They open new schools, have plans to grow their footprints, are funded primarily through either tuition or public programs, are fully independent of religious institutions, and are generally academically and operationally centralized. Five networks—Blyth-Templeton, HOPE Christian Schools, LUMIN, Thales Academy, and The Oaks Academy—fit in this category.
  1. Hybrid Networks share some characteristics with both Redemptive and Expansion Networks, but have undertaken innovative approaches to their models that distinguish them in important ways from other PSMOs. Notre Dame ACE Academies, Cristo Rey, and the Denver Street Schools are all Hybrid Networks.

Many private schools have a long track record of providing a high-quality education to low-income and minority students living in our nation’s inner cities. While there is limited evidence to date of the academic track records of PSMOs, they have the potential to greatly expand the private school options to which families have access. Understanding the key differentiating factors among existing PSMOs is key to understanding how social entrepreneurs, practitioners, policymakers, advocates, and philanthropists can support the creation, growth, and development of PSMOs and more high-quality private schools for families.

Bellwether on Catholic Schools and the Pope’s U.S. Visit

Pope Francis is in the United States this week, and he made a pit stop at an innovative Catholic school in New York City. To mark the occasion, Bellwether has written a number of pieces about our recent (and ongoing) work on Catholic schools:

We also have two projects coming down the pipeline:

  • A donor guidebook for Philanthropy Roundtable about Catholic schools — you can read the first chapter here and an article excerpted from the book here
  • A report for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice focuses on the CMO-like networks gaining traction in Catholic schooling (read more about these in Kelly’s blog post here)

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.