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Stage 1: Research

Stage 1: Research, Research, Research


Think about your charter school as a business, because that’s precisely what it is. The parents are your customers, and the education your school provides is the product/service. The children have FTE dollars that follow them, and that is your potential revenue. There is also an existing monopoly (the school district) with a loyal base of investors (teacher unions) that will try to stifle your business by attacking you in the media, aligning parents against you, and even taking you to court.

Let us be clear: starting a charter school is not easy.

If you were launching a new technology start-up in Silicon Valley, you wouldn’t just dive right into the financing process without understanding your niche, would you? You’d want to meticulously research the tech market and clarify a few things.

The same goes for your charter school market:

  • Find out what your state charter law allows and whether your school will be unreasonably compromised by the state law.
    • Are there statewide caps on charters, and how close is the state to that cap?
    • Are there enrollment caps at the school level that would limit the size of your operation?
    • Can charters only operate in certain Districts in the state (e.g. lowest performing)?
    • Are any Districts granted special charter refusal authority by state (as in Colorado)?
    • Will your teachers have to pay into the state’s retirement system?
    • Will your teachers be part of the District’s union or other collective bargaining organization?
    • Is charter school funding even high enough to run the school you have in mind, particularly for high-cost programs like STEM/STEAM and IB.
    • Does the state law require you to contract with District service providers?
    • Does the state law prohibit you from seeking professional consultation from a management company or other education service provider?
  • You must understand your competition.
    • Does your area even need another charter school? Why?
    • How many are there now, and who are on those governing boards?
    • How large are the charter schools in your area, and are they fully enrolled?
    • What do they specialize in, if anything?
    • How is your school concept different or better than the existing school choices?
  • If there is little or no charter competition, you must analyze the conventional market.
    • Are local District schools performing well, or are they performing poorly?
    • Are they overcrowded, or are they under-enrolled?
    • What sort of services are lacking at the local public schools that your school can provide?
    • Is the local District particularly hostile to charter schools? Who are the school board members? What are their respective stances on charter schools?
  • Now, let’s assume that: 1) the state law allows you to operate in your desired market, 2) you notice there are not enough charter school options in the area, and 3) you also determine that the local District is not doing its job in providing enough opportunities to families… you will also need to understand the student market that you will be serving in your new charter school.
    • Are there challenging demographics in your area, such as low-income families, families who speak English as a second language, or an underserved special education community?
    • Are teacher unions strong in your area, and how much community support will you be able to get for your charter school?
    • Are there other groups seeking to open a charter school as well, and can you unite with them under a common goal to increase solidarity and community support?
    • Who has been particularly outspoken against the District, and who has been supportive?
  • Finally, if you feel there is demand for a charter school and you understand exactly what it should look like and what type of student body you will serve, it’s best to start looking at property options as soon as possible. Do not enter into any formal discussions just yet, and certainly do not sign anything, but this is the time to get a few things on paper. It might be best to assign your board member (Stage 2) in charge of facilities as the chairman of the in-house planning team to deal with this.
    • How many students do you want to serve?
    • How will pick-up/drop-off/bus turnarounds work?
    • What type of special programs will be offered (STEM, athletics, band, etc.)?
    • Is there an existing budget for buying property, or will you have to rent space?
    • Is there a specific square footage per student required for charter schools by state or district policies?
    • How many sections (homeroom classrooms, or HRCs) will there be per grade?
    • What type of scheduling? Block? Year round?
    • Will classrooms be utilized all day, or will some be empty during planning periods?
    • How many lunch periods will there be?
    • How large of a lunch area does the school require?
    • IMPORTANT: In general, by the time you submit your charter you should have a few properties on a shortlist so that you can begin Phase 1 and Phase 2 due diligence on them.


Whatever mission statement or business plan you had before you began the research process may have changed in the meantime, and that’s perfectly fine. The whole concept behind the “lean start-up” is to obviate the traditional procedure of building a rigid 100-page business plan and sticking to it for 5 years. Your charter school business plan has to stay so flexible, in fact, that if your research shows your charter school idea to be redundant or useless, you must be willing to scrap it altogether and start from the beginning with something more marketable.

Once you understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into, and you truly feel that you can provide a valuable educational alternative to local families, you’re ready to move on to Stage 2. However, everything past Stage 2 gets extremely complicated, so before moving on you should know that there is a way to skip straight on to Opening Day: you can hire a management company.


…and more research


Hiring a management company has its benefits and its drawbacks, and your decision to hire one will largely depend on the role you want to play at the school.

If you are a board member and merely want to oversee the general strategic direction of the school, or if you are a hands-off citizen more concerned about the lack of school options in your area than you are about running one, you might consider hiring a management company to handle the gritty day-to-day operations of the school itself.

However, if you are a micromanaging board member, or if you want to control a certain aspect of the school (curriculum, facility, hiring/firing teachers, etc.), you will probably want to simply subcontract to Educational Service Providers (ESPs) that only handle the other areas in which you have no interest. Management companies don’t leave much work for control-freaks.

Benefits:  Management companies that are active in your state are familiar with the chartering process in your state, so they are a great shortcut to getting your school open.

  • Most management companies will write the charter for you. They are experienced in doing so, and they will likely gain approval at least through whatever appeal process exists.
  • Most will help you find/purchase/maintain your facility. They tend to have access to capital sources that small boards do not.
  • Most will handle operational things like food service, busing, and hiring/firing as part of the contract, and they can usually do this at a cheaper rate than you could find on your own because of their existing relationships in an industry of scale.
  • Most use marketing and public relations tactics to fully enroll the school, and since their fees are tied to enrollment you can expect a management company to have a vested interest in your continued success.
  • Some management companies have their own curriculum and programming structure that they can replicate at your school. Not only are they usually proven and successful models, but the implementation is fluid and far easier than training a school of teachers yourself.

Drawbacks: Management companies have been vilified by the press for a number of reasons ranging from embezzlement to mismanagement, but those cases are rare and both non-managed charter schools and district-run public schools are guilty of similar corruption. The typical drawbacks to management companies are more mundane.

  • All charge a fee, which is part of the school budget. This is either a percentage of the school’s income based off its FTE count, or single fees for one-time services such as writing the charter or conducting a market survey.
  • Moderate lack of autonomy. The company will run most of the day-to-day school operations, meaning that only broad oversight of the company’s efforts is needed (again, control-freaks will likely not want to use an EMO).
  • Possible bad press. Your reputation will be attached to that of your management company, so if one of their schools in another state goes sour, you can expect a call from a local reporter asking why you use them.

If we can offer one piece of advice regarding management companies, it is to perform your due diligence just as you did for the initial phase of your school planning. There are literally dozens of large network charter operators out there, and plenty of smaller ones as well. Figure out which EMOs or CMOs are serving your local area and check on their enrollment, performance, and parental satisfaction before settling on one.

Also, if you decide not to go with a management company, be mindful that you will eventually have to yield responsibility and control to someone, whether it ends up being a board member, a principal, or your school’s PTA. You might still have “creative control,” but no single person ever runs an entire public school alone.