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C. Wright Millot

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When I descended into pre-March Madness two weeks ago, we were discussing the relationships between service providers, quasi-academic publications, policy research/advocacy organizations, and the foundations that fund them (see my posts here, here, and here). (This March, I’m chanting The Devil Runs Stata instead of Rock Chalk Jayhawk, so posting may continue to be lighter than usual this month.)

In the meantime, Dean Millot has been channeling C. Wright Mills. (Yes, that's C. Wright on the motorcycle.) He’s penned four meaty posts that zero in on the charter school piece of this puzzle, which was underrepresented in the original post. Let me briefly summarize his central arguments:

Part I: Deconstructing a "Social Keiretsu" in Public Education Reform: Millot convincingly argues that this form of organization mirrors the Japanese keiretsu, whereby one bank lends money to and holds equity in a group of companies that often span industrial sectors.

Some keiretsu are vertically integrated, much like the relationship between teacher training programs like Teach For America and leadership training programs like New Leaders, which provide a pipeline to charter schools. In turn, charter management organizations support the founding and maintenance of charter schools, and policy-advocacy groups disseminate research supporting charter schools. Interestingly, two partners from the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, which describes its investment portfolio as a keiretsu, sit on the board of a critical player in Millot’s story - the New Schools Venture Fund.

Part II: Board of Directors: Millot investigates the Boards of Directors of a wide range of organizations. He moves beyond my graph by examining the role of individuals (not just organizations) on multiple boards, and finds deep overlaps. This configuration, he argues, opens the door for coordination and control. He reviews the role of the non-profit board, and asks whether these overlaps endanger the ability of boards to fulfill their duties.

Part III: Money Talks, But What Does it Say?: Analyzing organizations’ funding, Millot contends that a small number of foundations act as a bank for an interconnected group of charter management organizations and policy-advocacy organizations/thinktanks. He traces the funding of these groups using their 990 forms, and provides a graphic that visually displays resource flows. The result is a fascinating topography of the charter school movement.

Part IV: You Can Learn a Lot at Conferences: Finally, Millot digs up the participants at five major conferences. Millot writes, “When the same people and entities appear as organizers, moderators, speakers, discussants and panelists in a series of conferences on roughly the same topic, that pattern has meaning. Either no one else has anything to say that is worthy of attention, or this group has decided what is important to say and who is important to hear.”

Thus far, Millot has left us to decide what it all means. What the potential implications of these relationships, both positive and negative?

There is a vast literature on the effects of vertical integration, organizational social capital, and inter-organizational social networks. Here’s my summary: networks can generate enormous trust and encourage innovation as a result. People prefer to transact with individuals of known reputations, so deeply embedded relationships can reduce transaction costs and make collective action possible. For example, consider this Ed Week commentary describing the collaboration between three Charter Management Organizations, which has led to a Masters Program at Hunter College to train teachers that will be prepared to teach in these CMO’s schools.

Trust can work in both directions, though. Other network scholars have argued that organizations can also consolidate their own power and advance their own agendas, and in doing so, act against the public interest. Social capital and social networks – whatever moniker you prefer – have a bright side, but they have a dark side as well.

Let me give a more micro-level example of the effects of networks within one school management organization. (While this is an intraorganizational example, the underlying mechanisms are ostensibly similar.) I’ve sat in the office of a principal and listened to him advise a fellow principal about how to improve students’ attendance, which invariably made a big difference for some students in his colleague’s school. Because of their common organizational affiliation, both schools regularly gained important insight into how to improve their schools. In the next breath, the same principal was accepting a transfer kid because his colleague’s school was one kid short of making AYP. As a result, the transfer student would not affect either school's numbers, and both schools would make AYP.

To sum up: though the conversation about networks in education to date has been unequivocally positive, it is important to remember that the networks Millot describes can work in both directions. Check out his posts, and let me know what you think below.
1 Comment

Maybe there's more going on than is evident to an outsider, but I'm left with and increasing sense that the main purpose of the CMO-centered network is the promotion of their particular "business model," in a way that is likely to help them expand their business.

When I first encountered charter schools, one of the selling points was that they could be testing grounds for new ideas in a way that was hard for regular public schools. But now there is very little discussion of which new practices work, and which don't. The main "innovation" seems to be insulation from democratic control and public oversight (and, to be fair, the bureaucracy that tends to accompany oversight) and a (mostly) non-union workforce.

And the discussions tend to center mainly on the rather nebulous question "are charter schools better?" with an increasingly well-funded network of organizations seeming to have a stake in the answer.

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