Charter Sector Challenged by Quality of School Boards
Efforts to improve governance catch on
A District of Columbia charter school spent millions contracting for services with a company owned by the school’s founder. And an Ohio charter spent more on rent than staff salaries—money paid to a company that was owned by the same education management group that ran the school.
Those two cases illustrate a recurring issue in the charter school sector: poorly prepared school boards that fail to stop questionable deals or flat out corruption.
When charter schools struggle or get shut down, weak governance is often the source of trouble. And many times, that issue is linked directly to the charter school's board, an entity that even many charter supporters say too often flies under the radar of public scrutiny.
Efforts to professionalize charter boards and raise the caliber of the people serving on them are gaining traction in some corners of the charter sector, even if policy and research focused on the role of those local boards remain scant.
Training for Boards
Last month, a group of sitting and soon-to-be seated charter school board members—lawyers, government workers, and researchers among them—descended on Chavez Prep Middle School, a charter in the nation's capital, as part of a training workshop designed specifically for members of charter boards.
"I don’t think there are enough good charter school boards because there hasn't been enough emphasis from leaders and authorizers on having strong boards," said Carrie Irvin, the president and co-founder of Charter Board Partners, a national nonprofit organization that provides training to charter boards and the sponsor of the recent workshop in Washington. (Charter Board Partners is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Education Week receives support from Gates for coverage of the implementation of college and career-ready standards and from Walton for coverage of parent empowerment issues.)
Taking participants to a local charter school helps drive home the point that a board serves students before all else, Ms. Irvin said.
Having nonprofit boards run individual or small groups of schools instead of a single, elected board running an entire district, is one of the biggest innovations of the charter school movement, some advocates say.
"Charter or no, every school is unique, so there is tremendous benefit to making decisions as close as possible to the kids," Ms. Irvin said. "Boards are able to make much nimbler decisions in response to the particular needs of students and families of that school."
Although that may be the case, such a setup can limit broader community input because charter board members aren't elected by voters.
"District school boards, however imperfect, allow for that," said Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "Obviously the number of people who vote for them is pretty low, but they were designed to reflect the needs and preferences of the wider community."
This form of school governance also can bring a unique set of problems, caused by an evolving and often unclear chain of accountability among authorizer, board, and management company, said Luis A. Huerta, an associate professor of education and public policy at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
'The majority [of states] have no regulation that outlines the operations or makeup of charter school governing boards," Mr. Huerta said. "Ultimately, I'm not convinced that board professionalism would necessarily mitigate [those issues].'
The board holds the charter—or the contract—with the authorizer for the school, and is in charge of big-picture operations such as governance, strategic planning, and financial oversight. That last item has been a particular problem for the sector, whose schools receive public funding but operate independently.
Last year, the board for the Community Academy Public Charter Schools, in Washington, came under fire for hiring a company belonging to the school's founder. That company was paid $2.1 million in 2014 to provide maintenance and administrative services, among other duties.
"But it turned out the company only had three employees: the founder, his wife, and his stepson, and they weren't performing many of those services," said Scott D. Pearson, the executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the city’s sole authorizer.
The authorizer eventually decided to shutter the school for fiscal mismanagement. "A lot of people don’t realize how much of a responsibility service on a nonprofit board is," Mr. Pearson said. "They don’t realize that they have serious fiduciary responsibilities."
Mr. Pearson told participants in the recent training session that the No. 1 mistake board members make is simply being disengaged when they are responsible for being stewards of the public's money.
"If it feels fishy to you, it probably is," he told the attendees. "This is taxpayer money, and it's a lot. The total budget for city charter schools [in the District of Columbia] is $700 million."
Situations like the one with Community Academy Public Charter Schools don't just affect a single campus. Proponents worry that they tarnish the whole charter movement.
Ohio has also had a spate of charter school scandals in recent years to the point where the governor and several state legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, are now pushing to retool the state charter school law. Bills that would increase oversight and accountability are making their way through the Statehouse.
Lack of Expertise
One of the organizations backing the tighter state oversight of Ohio's charter sector is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Its Ohio branch also authorizes charter schools in the state.
"Almost always when you see these meltdowns, the board does not understand some very basic things," said Kathryn Mullen Upton, who is in charge of authorizing at Fordham in Ohio. "Often, they relate to areas of professional expertise—being able to read a financial statement and understanding the state’s accountability system."
She said it's important to have a diverse group of professions and backgrounds represented by members on a board because the panels have all the duties and obligations of a school district. They need lawyers, real estate agents, and human resources professionals to compliment the educational expertise of the school leader, she said.
For that reason, Charter Board Partners—which joined the Fordham Institute for a separate board training in Ohio— also acts as a matchmaker, recruiting prospective board members and connecting them with schools.
One such recruit in the District of Columbia is Blanca Guillen-Woods. She is a consultant working in education research, but serving on a charter board wasn't something Ms. Guillen-Woods at first thought she was qualified to do, "because I always think of boards in terms of the financial contributions, which I'm not really in the position to help out with as much. I don’t have a lot of connections in that way," she said.
But as a parent of school-age children, a fluent Spanish-speaker, and an education professional, Ms. Guillen-Woods, in the view of Charter Board Partners, was a prime candidate for a charter board—especially in the District of Columbia, where the authorizer is pushing school boards to use data in more of their decision-making. She is in the process of getting matched with a board.
Authorizers—or sponsors, as they're called in Ohio—have come under the microscope recently as highly publicized school management issues drive a greater focus on charter school quality nationwide. As the charter-granting entity, the authorizer makes the final call in whether a school is allowed to continue operating or is shut down.
But on the other side of any charter contract is a school board, and that party seems mostly to escape notice.
As evidence, Ms. Mullen Upton, Ms. Irvin, and Mr. Huerta all point to a dearth of policy, data, and research which makes it hard to draw any conclusions about the overall quality and professionalism of charter boards on a national scale.
Only seven states—Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas—require charter school board members to undergo any kind of training, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. However, individual authorizers may require training as part of the charter-application process. Charter school associations, as well as organizations like Charter Board Partners, may offer training, but participation, like board service, is voluntary.
"Hopefully, within the next several years, there will be more attention on the importance of that role," said Ms. Mullen Upton. "At the end of the day, they are responsible for the ultimate success or failure of the school."
And, Mr. Huerta added, that may lead to more accountability. "If there isn't enough focus, that means they’re off the hook."
Vol. 34, Issue 32, Page 10Published in Print: June 3, 2015, as Charter Sector Challenged by Caliber of School Boards