[Editor’s Note: This post is the first of four that look at alternative funding models and approaches for Christian schools. The purpose of this series is to encourage dialogue, both within the Christian school movement and at individual schools, about the sustainability challenges facing much of the sector. While some of the ideas presented by the authors in this series may run contrary to “traditional” practice in Christian education, the purpose again is not to provide recommendations or guidance, but rather to spark thinking and discussion along these lines. We encourage readers to submit comments below the post to begin the dialogue and share ideas].
Research tells us one of the common concerns across all spectrums and sizes of Christian schools is sustainability. As churches continue to recede from planting and supporting Christian education and the middle class continues to shrink, while educational cost continues to rise, we are seeing the predominant method of funding Christian education (full tuition-paying parents) becoming more and more the emphasis—but not necessarily leading to viable financial models for struggling Christian.
There is no silver bullet to these concerns, but we must begin to explore new ways of providing a Christian education so we don’t turn into a niche service. Our movement really needs some incubators of innovation spanning topics from content delivery to business.
One such avenue Protestant schools have been slow to adopt, which promises to bring additional expertise, operational support, and potentially reduced cost, is the idea of outsourcing to an Educational Management Organization (EMO) or Private School Management Organization (PSMO). More widely known in the charter school movement, these entities often function as the operational back office for multiple schools.
Three Characteristics of PSMOs
PSMOs typically share three characteristics, as defined by EdChoice. First, they are not themselves a school but a separate entity apart from any church or individual school. Second, they help run the operations of a school to varying degrees. Some might simply support existing efforts while others might directly oversee much of the back office functions. Third, they offer these services to multiple schools concurrently.
A PSMO’s role can range from basic offerings of payroll and bulk purchase discounts to more robust offerings, including pooled professional development, hiring of staff, business modeling, academic tracking, and opening new schools, to name a few. They have the potential to allow school staff to focus on academic concerns while leaving the operational concerns to a central office that has proven expertise in handling operational issues. A PSMO can provide services a singular independent school could not afford on its own while also cutting overall cost to the school.
PSMOs Support Growth
The limited research on PSMOs points to an additional benefit to Christian schools. Not only do PSMOs provide operational expertise, but the handful that currently exist are also focused on either working with the school to grow the number of seats or opening new schools in cooperation with those already in existence. PSMOs are not just about making Christian education more affordable and operationally sound, but also helping to grow the movement where growth is possible.
Charter management organizations are largely pushing the growth of charter schools and, on average, one in three charter schools are working with an EMO or have been created by an EMO. There is no reason PSMOs cannot have a similar impact on growing the number of seats and schools in the Christian school realm.
The future success of the Christian school movement will likely require the cooperative effort of schools and PSMOs bringing together their resources and expertise to make Christian education available to a wider.
Much more has been written on EMOs and charter management organizations than on PSMOs, and in truth, the PSMO is still in its infancy. The best PSMO study I am aware of is from EdChoice.org. See their work in two separate studies:
- Private School Pioneers: Studying the Emerging Field of Private School Management Organizations; and
- The Chartered Course: Can Private School Choice Proponents Learn from the Charter School Sector?
About the Author
Philip Scott’s background is a blend of education, religion, and law. He has taught middle and high school students in Christian schools. He is twice a graduate of Liberty University—in education and from their law school—and has studied theology and law at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as ACSI’s In-House Counsel. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.