A new study is exploring whether charter school networks such as San Diego’s High Tech High are better for students’ learning, Education Week reports.

Charter school networks are to charter schools what Starbucks is for coffee — a franchise for an educational model. The networks take a popular school concept and replicate it across multiple schools. In edu-jargon, they’re called charter management organizations, or CMOs.

High Tech High schools, for instance, use project-based learning to get kids engaged. That model has now expanded to multiple San Diego-area schools, including a new site in Chula Vista.

Scholars are unsure whether the franchise approach has any impact — good or bad — on the kids enrolled in a CMO-affiliated school:

“There is a big black box between a student being affiliated with CMOs and that student’s learning,” said Paul T. Hill, the study’s principal investigator and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which is based at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We’re trying to fill in the box.”

The three-year longitudinal National Study of CMO Effectiveness, announced this month by the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund entrepreneurial philanthropy and the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will cover almost 200 schools within 33 CMOs in 12 states.

“Although many studies have been done on the effectiveness of charter schools, this is the first expansive study on CMO effectiveness,” Vicki L. Phillips, the Gates Foundation’s education chief, said in an e-mail.

Starting next fall, investigators will research in earnest what’s projected to be a three-pronged look at the efficacy of as many nonprofit charter networks as will consent to be studied. The Gates Foundation expects that the study will cost more than $3 million.

EMILY ALPERT

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