Putting Education Reform To The Test

Q & A: Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathon Hage

Charter Schools USA is one of Florida’s largest for-profit management companies, with 25,000 students in three states. The company was just awarded a contract to help turn around three Indiana schools taken over by the state.

Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathon Hage is a one-time adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and helped draft the 1996 Florida law creating charter schools. Hage sat down with StateImpact Florida for a question and answer session.

Here are excerpts:

Q: When you guys opened in 1997, what was the landscape like?

 A: I was involved in helping write the original charter school law in Florida. I worked for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future and worked on the policy and then I fell in love with the concept after helping start one of the first charter schools in the state.

I started as a non-profit focused on helping people get applications approved through the school districts and quickly found that people needed  the help in actually running the schools and it needed on my part the opportunity to take investment to build an enterprise so we could hire the best and brightest and bring in the technologies, the curriculum and build an operating company, which is what Charter Schools USA has become…

Even though we’re for-profit as a company we serve non-profit boards in every case. So the charter is actually held by the not-for-profit who then hires Charter Schools USA to operate the school under a performance management agreement.

We act in a way not so dissimilar to how a curriculum or a payroll company but we do multiple items for the non-profit board. Our boards include not-for-profit foundations, actually school districts themselves, municipalities and a variety of different types of settings and boards.

Q: So you guys offer the expertise for people who may not have technical expertise in running a school?

A: Right.

A municipal government may say they need a charter school to help meet their constituents’ needs. Let’s say there’s a lack of options in their community or there’s low-performing schools and residents are saying ‘We really would love to have a high-performing school otherwise we’re moving out of the community.’

They’ll hire us to help develop the model, bring our research-based model to the team and then operate that school under a long-term management agreement.

We’ll actually hire the staff, we’ll implement the curriculum, we’ll pay the payrolls, do the technology, train the teachers under a performance agreement.  And the board acts as the overseer to make sure we’re meeting the criteria set out in the charter.

It’s a good partnership. You basically have a public-private partnership that allows the model to succeed.

Q: And you guys are paid a management fee or an administrative fee for this?

A: What typically will take place is the student population brings with it a set amount of money per student depending on what grade the student is in what type of academic environment and special needs they might bring. And those funds are aggregated into a total budget and out of that budget one of the line items is paying us a fee for the services for operating and managing the school.

Q: How do you respond to criticisms that charter schools are essentially privatizing the public school industry?

A: You hear it all the time. I think most of it’s based on not understanding the way the model works, trying to put a label on it that engenders a certain amount of fear or concern that public dollars are just going to line someone’s pocket.

The irony of that is public education for over 100 years has relied on services and products from the private sector whether they be computers, curriculum, books, supplies  – you name it. The difference now is that we’re trying to sort of get away from labels and focus on what works.

Private enterprise has done amazing things throughout the American economy for the last several hundred years. It has succeeded in ways beyond anyone’s imagination, but it has also failed from time to time. The same thing with the public sector.

“When those roles are all played appropriately and they’re balanced out you really get effective outcomes. When any one of those roles becomes the dominant player that’s when sometimes the model doesn’t work and that’s when you get into trouble.”

-Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathon Hage

This is really, truly a public-private partnership. Everybody plays a role.

The government plays a role ensuring that dollars are appropriately spent and they should continue to do that vigorously.

The private sector plays a role in producing innovation, efficiency and effective outcomes.

And non-profits play a role in ensuring that the student is the center of everything that’s done and that the community is a part of the decision-making.

When those roles are all played appropriately and they’re balanced out you really get effective outcomes. When any one of those roles becomes the dominant player that’s when sometimes the model doesn’t work and that’s when you get into trouble…

Performance is what matters.

Parents never ask what’s the tax status or the proprietary nature of the curriculum or the company? They want to know: Is this school working for my student?

Q: What is the state of charter schools today and where do you think they are leading in terms of school choice and changing the way education is done in Florida?

A: Having been involved in this over the last 15 years I think we’re going into a new phase of charter schools.

The first 15 years it tended to focus mainly on innovation and just getting the charters open and being different than what was being offered within the traditional public school system.

Today charter schools are needing to focus more and more on research-based learning that’s been proven. Taking ideas that have been tried and proven and replicating them and ensuring the model is successful earlier and sooner.

Just because you’re a charter doesn’t mean that you’re better than a traditional public school. It means that you are different.

I think there are now almost two decades of charter research out there across the country – 15 years here in Florida – of finding out what works and what doesn’t.

I believe the area of growth really is what we call high-performing charter schools. Florida just passed legislation this last year that I think will become a model nationally for replicating proven models of charter schools that are already having the highest outcomes for students.

Q: Explain to me what qualifies a high-performing charter school as a high-performing charter school?

A: You have 15 years of historical data to see what has worked and what hasn’t.

So when you have a school that has opened up in a high-poverty, low-performing area and that charter school has consistently out-performed its peers then they have practices and processes and learned outcomes that should be replicated.

If you can see the school has performed well over the past several years academically and it’s financially healthy…if you can take at least those two measurements of financial health and academic performance and have a proven, scalable model then that’s something that policy makers are interested in replicating.

And that’s why the Florida legislature and the governor here was, I think, at the forefront of envisioning that’s where charters need to go.

At the same time there’s low-performing charters that need to get the kind of support to turn around or if they’re not doing the job they need to be shut down ultimately.


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