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Getting to Scale: Ideas, Opportunities, and Resources in the Early Diffusion of the Charter Management Organization, 1999–2006

by Rand Quinn, Carrie Oelberger & Debra Meyerson - 2016

Background/Context: The concept of scale has gained purchase across social sectors in recent years as organizational leaders and funders seek to maximize the impact of promising social innovations.

Purpose/Objective: We apply insights from recent scholarship on ideas as mechanisms for change to explain how the idea of “getting to scale” intersected with political opportunities and human and financial resources in the early diffusion of the charter management organization (CMO).

Research Design: As the birthplace and a political locus of the CMO form, California is an ideal vantage point from which to understand the early years of the form’s diffusion. We conducted interviews with California CMO and non-CMO leaders, principals, and funders. Our interviews were designed to understand when and why CMO leaders thought about growth, the challenges and opportunities associated with growth, organizational goals and strategic priorities, and whether and how funders shaped CMO development and plans. In addition, we constructed a school-level panel dataset for the 1991–92 to 2006–07 school years using data from the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data and the California Department of Education. We included charter organizational form, enrollment, and school founding and closure years. We also joined multiple Foundation Center datasets to create a grant-level dataset for the years 1999 to 2006 that includes grant amount, grant type, recipient, and funder. Finally, we conducted participant and nonparticipant observations at CMO board meetings, foundation staff meetings and presentations, and charter school conferences and meetings.

Findings/Results: Understood and framed as the vehicle for getting to scale, the CMO form drew a disproportionate share of private philanthropy dollars, appealed to a new class of professionals from outside of education, and was successfully distinguished from alternative charter forms, all of which contributed to its early diffusion.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We develop a fuller understanding of the charter school movement, describing how the diffusion of the CMO form displaced ideas about school-level autonomy and decentralization in favor of ideas about getting to scale and tipping the system. The study also offers insight to scholars analyzing current and past efforts at educational reform by emphasizing the roles played by ideas, opportunities, and resources.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 9, 2016, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21524, Date Accessed: 9/24/2021 1:46:33 AM

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About the Author
  • Rand Quinn
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    RAND QUINN is an assistant professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include the origins and political consequences of private sector engagement in public education, the politics of race and ethnicity in urban school reform, and the impact of community based institutions, organizations, and action in education. Recent publications include “Beyond grantmaking: Philanthropic foundations as agents of change and institutional entrepreneurs” (with Megan Tompkins-Stange and Debra Meyerson) published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, “Did Pennsylvania's Act 61 increase education spending or provide tax relief?” (with Matthew Steinberg, Daniel Kreisman, and Cameron Anglum) published in National Tax Journal, and “Teacher activist organizations and the development of professional agency” (with Nicole Carl) published in Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice.
  • Carrie Oelberger
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    CARRIE R. OELBERGER is an assistant professor of management at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She studies how nonprofit organizations influence the private lives of their staff and how private interests shape nonprofit organizations and fields. She is currently examining how employees navigate careers in deeply meaningful work settings that compromise meaningful private lives, as well as studying how philanthropy shapes social movements and organizational fields. She received her PhD in organization studies from Stanford University.
  • Debra Meyerson
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    DEBRA MEYERSON is a consulting professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education (GSE) and a faculty research fellow at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Prior to surviving a severe stroke in 2010, she was an associate professor at GSE and (by courtesy) the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). She was faculty co-founder of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) and taught courses at the GSE and GSB on organizing for diversity, the leadership of social change, and educational and social entrepreneurship. Debra is the author of two books and more than 50 articles and chapters in academic and popular publications. Her books include Tempered Radicals: How Everyday Leaders Inspire Change at Work (HBS Press, 2001), which examines processes by which people advance controversial change from within organizations and leadership practices that foster grass-roots activism, and Preparing Principals for a Changing World (Darling-Hammond, Meyerson, LaPointe and Orr, Jossey-Bass, 2010). She has also examined issues around the scaling of charter schools and other non-profit organizations, and the role of philanthropic organizations in shaping such efforts. Her current priority is writing a book, tentatively titled Identity Theft: Recovery, Renewal and Discovery after Stroke. Using her own journey through stroke recovery, as well as interviews with more than two dozen other stroke survivors, she is now exploring identity through a different lens.
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