The Ties Between EMOs and Charter Schools

In my previous article, I did a deep dive into charter schools and what you should consider when choosing one. EMOs (education management organizations) were briefly discussed as a way in which charter schools are created.

Today I will go more in-depth about EMOs and their link to charter schools. Education management organizations are not very popular in mainstream news, but they are something to consider when deciding if a charter school is right for your child. 

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What exactly is an EMO?

Western Michigan University defines an education management organization (EMO)  as follows:

“An education management organization is an organization or firm that manages at least one school that receives public funds and operates the public schools it manages under the same admissions rules as regular public schools.”

green trees between white concrete buildings

In simpler terms, an EMO is a contractor, outside of the educational institutions, that runs the day to day administration of charter schools that receive public funding.  Because they work with publicly funded schools, they are allowed to work with more traditional schools as well, not just those with charters.

I know, a bit confusing, right?

An education management organization works just as its name implies. It can handle every single aspect of the educational experience, from purchasing student desks to curriculum creation to teacher acquisition, without any of the administrative hurdles and pitfalls.

It can do this because it is bound by neither a public school district nor a complicated charter agreement. The EMO merely finds some community leaders who want to form a charter school, but don’t have the wherewithal to get started with creating one or simply lack all the necessary funds to do so. 

If these community leaders decide to partner with an EMO, they can just sit back and let the organization take care of everything for them.

Sounds good, right? Let’s go deeper.

What are the good things about an EMO?

EMOs receive funding from the state or district they have a contract with, and can handle everything from buying textbooks to purchasing new property. They do this under the name of the contracted school as part of a contract signed with community leaders at the beginning of their relationship. The EMO then takes a small percentage that they can then put into other projects like developing new programs and curricula for the school or acquiring new buildings for expansion.

EMOs can be either for-profit or non-profit and can be in charge of both traditional district schools and charter schools. Advocates of EMO-managed charter schools argue that because they are not bound by the rules of traditional school districts, they are free to create a better learning environment for the students and can put together a curriculum based on the needs of the area where that school is established.

Also, rather than just creating a school from scratch, public school districts can reach out to EMOs if one of their schools is in need of a complete change. Back in 2001, Baltimore Public Schools hired Victory Schools, Inc (an EMO based in New York City) to completely reform Westport Elementary, which was considered one of the worst performing schools in the state at the time.

Poor performing schools needing help is not just a USA phenomena. In Pakistan, an EMO was hired to help with the educational outcomes of underperforming students, especially the girls, in rural areas of the Sindh region. 

shallow focus photography of girl

EMOs claim that they are as good, if not better, at educating children than traditional public schools. This is because of the incentive they face to satisfy their customers (which could be parents, a school district or a charter school they have contracted with). Therefore, EMOs make it a point to focus on academic performance from students.

In addition, if a city or district would like to create a charter school for their neighborhood, reaching out to an EMO could really expedite the process. Because the EMO itself does not need to go through a local school district, it can streamline the entire management process and have children in their seats in a matter of months.

EMOs do not have free reign to do whatever they want, however. This study makes the point that school districts and other education agencies are responsible for making sure that all elements of the contract that they sign with the EMO are clearly defined at the very beginning. The school districts themselves become “contract monitors”, which includes delivering penalties if the EMO does not live up to its contractual obligations.

This is why oversight of EMOs is very important. More on that later.

Possible concerns about EMOs

It seems to be the case that some EMOs go for size and scale at the expense of decent curricula for the students.

For example, this 2009 study showed that students who spent three years studying at an EMO-run charter school had good results in reading vocabulary, but had less than stellar results in reading comprehension (which in my personal opinion is far more important). This would lead to better overall state test scores, which was probably the point to begin with. 

The study also found that EMO charter schools also implement lots of standardized curricula that can then be taught by teachers that don’t have a lot of experience. They can then excel at teaching basic skills to students but fall flat when it comes to more complex skills (like reading comprehension).

Another problem EMOs tend to have is with the teachers themselves. A 2018 survey was conducted on the teacher turnover rate in EMO and CMO-managed charter schools. 

man in suit jacket standing beside projector screen

The study found an increased tendency for teacher migration, particularly in charter schools run by EMOs. Teachers from EMO-managed schools were more likely to either leave the school or the entire teaching profession altogether compared to their counterparts in regular-run charter schools. 

The reason for this seemed to mainly be due to working conditions. The prominent factor in whether teachers stayed or left these schools were collegiality (the level of companionship between colleagues) and the low level of administrative support they received.

But these are not the only problems that EMOs face.

Why oversight is important

Once an EMO is hired, they are then responsible for the amount of funding they receive to manage the school and are required to use it responsibly. As stated before, certain large-scale EMOs are able to get their hands on enormous amounts of capital to build and maintain their schools, but that doesn’t mean that the accrued capital will be used for the benefit of the school or the students.

For these large-scale EMOs, more oversight by the school district or education agency (i.e. charter school) that hired them is needed to make sure they are fulfilling their charter agreements. Lack of such oversight could even lead to a charter school being completely shut down.

For example, consider the case of Torchlight Academy, a charter school in Raleigh, North Carolina. On June 30th, Torchlight Academy was shut down due to the mismanagement of the school’s chief administrator Don McQueen. 

McQueen is also the owner of Torchlight Academy Schools, LLC, which is a for-profit EMO.

This came after a months-long investigation by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction that found that McQueen had violated the agreed-upon charter arrangement due to poor fiscal management and not providing enough oversight. He also failed to produce documentation about how he spent the state and federal money that his charter school received. 

This is a shame because it seemed like Torchlight was a blessing for many parents of the students that attended. Torchlight provided afterschool programs that the students could participate in while their parents were at work. 

All in all, EMO-managed schools are an option for parents who do not want their children to participate in the traditional public school system. Whether an EMO-run school is the perfect choice for your child is your decision. 

Before making your choice, please check out even more podcasts and blogs about alternative education solutions for your child right here on One-Room Education.


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