School & District Management

Many Charter Boards Seen as Unprepared

By Catherine Gewertz — September 08, 2008 11 min read
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As charter schools have proliferated, they have been praised, criticized, and debated. Studies of their academic performance have stacked up on policymakers’ desks. But the boards that run them serve in relative obscurity, even as they face distinctive challenges.

An estimated 4,300 charter schools are up and running in the United States, and they’re required by state law to have governing boards. That means tens of thousands of board members are grappling with making such schools work. But no comprehensive profile of the panels has been compiled—an information gap that some researchers say impedes efforts to strengthen them.

“We’re 17 years into the charter school movement, and we still don’t have a good descriptive analysis of those boards,” says Todd M. Ziebarth, the vice president for policy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, located in Washington. “Without that, it is hard to get to real specific prescriptions for improving effectiveness.”

But gradually, rough outlines are emerging of the issues that are specific to the boards of these quasi-independent public schools.

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Some problems—like micromanaging school affairs—are common to both charter and traditional school boards. At Silver State Charter High School in Carson City, Nev., for example, the board banned open-toe footwear after one member spotted a school secretary in sandals, says founding Principal Steve Knight.

Most states do not mandate training for regular school district or charter school board members. That leaves them unprepared for the challenges of managing complex finances and data systems, and of focusing on big-picture policy instead of day-to-day detail, says Brian

L. Carpenter, who trains charter school boards across the country through his nonprofit Mount Pleasant, Mich.-based National Charter Schools Institute. Since charter board members don’t have the expertise of a district’s central-office staff to rely on, training is particularly important for them, experts say.

A forthcoming study on charter school boards by the Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California’s Rossier school of education found that of the District of Columbia and the 40 states with charter school laws, only one state’s law—Florida’s—requires training for charter school board members.

A Growing Issue

But training requirements vary widely, the center found. Florida’s mandated 12-hour training covers topics including its charter school law, governance best practices, public-records and open-meetings law, accounting and attendance rules, insurance coverage, and facilities requirements. Nevada requires only that board members sign affidavits stating that they have read literature about their roles and responsibilities. In some states, training mandates are in written or unwritten rules, but not in law. In others, training is altogether voluntary.

Priscilla Wohlstetter, who directs the center, says fiscal mismanagement and poor governance are the two leading problems with charter school boards. Both are issues far from unfamiliar to traditional district school boards.

Charter school boards do confront issues that are unique to them, however. And the potential impact of failing to prepare them properly for their jobs is growing, authorities on school governance say.

“As there are more and more charter schools, this issue is bound to get bigger,” says Donald R. McAdams, who studies and trains school boards through his Houston-based Center for the Reform of School Systems.

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The fifth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the leadership challenges facing the nation’s rapidly growing charter school sector.

Click here to read the full report.

“Unlike traditional boards, they have fundraising responsibilities,” notes McAdams, a former member of Houston’s school board. “It’s important that they know the charter laws in their states.”

While most traditional district board members are elected, most charter board members are chosen by the school’s founders. Often, they were friends or close associates of founders, or were leading activists in the gargantuan effort to get the school’s doors open. Those dynamics, experts say, can both enrich and hamper a board’s work.

“By their very nature, they are very close to their constituents,” says Jan Rhode, the director of board development for the Minnesota School Boards Association, which helps the state department of education provide training for charter school boards. “They know the parents, the children, the teachers, and their hopes and dreams very personally. And that’s good.

“But it puts them under tremendous pressure to respond to all those people and their specific issues,” Rhode says. “They need to stay focused on vision, mission, goals.”

Many boards find it tough to find make the transition from early-stage school startup to long-term vision, says Robin J. Lake, the director of the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington. “Many boards started as friends of the school, or of the founder, with a very vested interest in the school’s day-to-day operations,” she says. “It can be hard for them to get some distance, to work like a professional, policymaking body.”

Heather Shepherd, the first head of school at Channing Hall, a 2-year-old charter school serving grades K-8 in Draper, Utah, says she believes board members would benefit from three distinct stages of training: one during startup, to support them as they secure facilities, funding, and staff members to open the school; a second as the school opens, to help them step back from their original roles into bigger-picture oversight; and another in the school’s second year, to solidify that new role.

Her board is “awesome” in its dedication and ongoing self-education, Shepherd says, but “they had trouble letting go”—including resistance to giving her authority over teacher hiring and firing—after the startup phase.

‘Founderitis’

Carpenter of the National Charter Schools Institute often sees cases of “founderitis.”

Out of allegiance to a founder who “moved heaven and earth” to open a school, and then chose them to serve as its first board, panelists abdicate too much authority, he says, and the founder “ends up in charge of everything, and the board does what he tells it to do.”

Marci Cornell-Feist, a Harvard, Mass.-based consultant who has trained charter school boards nationally for 10 years, says the power to select board members is a potentially important tool in building a strong board well matched to a school’s needs.

“You can identify skills and qualities you are looking for,” she says, “instead of just holding an election and seeing who runs.”

Authorizers—the state agencies or other bodies legally empowered to grant charters—can play a major role in ensuring strong charter boards, Cornell-Feist says. In Massachusetts, for instance, the entire founding board must be extensively interviewed before a decision to grant a charter is made, she says.

Too many charter school boards lack sufficient independence from their schools’ managers, governance experts say. Carpenter knows of several schools in which a brother or sister of the school director serves on the board. Rhode points out that Minnesota—the first state to establish charter schools—requires that teachers form the majority on charter school boards.

“How does a teacher truly take their teacher hat off when they come into the boardroom?” Rhode asks. “How do they deal with salary issues? How can they go against the recommendations of their director when their director is their immediate supervisor?”

The question of board independence has been particularly pointed when a large nonprofit group or for-profit company manages charter schools. Carpenter cites one instance in which an education management organization that he declines to name chose the auditor for its schools, and the board approved it without a question.

A 2007 report by the Ohio state auditor found that many of the charter schools run in that state by Akron-based White Hat Management had the same handful of board members in common. White Hat spokesmen did not return calls for this story. But a company spokesman has said previously that White Hat does not pick board members for its schools. The Ohio Federation of Teachers’ research into four private-management organizations in the state, including White Hat, has found overlapping board memberships or a “superboard” controlling all of a company’s charters. (“Union Accuses Charter Operator of Skirting Ohio Law,” March 15, 2006.)

Gary J. Miron, a Western Michigan University education professor who co-wrote a 2002 book about how private management affects public schools, says his research, which focused on schools in Michigan, shows that large management companies often initiate the charter school idea, recruit board members, and take the lead in writing the proposal.

“It’s getting the cart before the horse,” he says. “The boards should be the one choosing the management companies. Charter schools are supposed to come from the community, and be autonomous and locally run.”

Stewards of Public Schools

Cornell-Feist, the Massachusetts-based consultant, says hiring a nonprofit or for-profit education management company can be a smart decision for a charter school board, because the company can provide curriculum or managerial expertise and financial efficiency the board doesn’t have on its own. But she cautions that “where it works well, there is a strong board that hires a strong management company. It doesn’t work well where a management company creates or is hired by a weaker board.”

Misconceptions about the very nature of charter schools can affect board members. A 2006 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll found that most respondents believed charter schools are private schools. Such misconceptions can aggravate a problem observers say is too common to charter boards: failing to understand their role as stewards of public schools.

During a recent visit with a charter school board in Texas, Carpenter of the National Charter Schools Institute listened as the panel’s talk turned to choosing a successor for the school’s founding chief executive officer.

“The founder said, ‘Oh, you guys don’t need to worry about it—it’s specified in my will who will take over upon my demise,’ ” Carpenter recalls. “I nearly fell off my chair. But that perception is prevalent, even among board members.

“It’s not a private school,” he emphasizes. “You are governing on the public’s behalf.”

Knight, the principal of Nevada’s Silver State Charter High, says his board was “six months into their board term, and they thought we charged money [to attend the school]. They didn’t understand how a charter works. Training leaves a lot to be desired.”

Awareness of the problem appears to be growing, though. Trainers such as Carpenter and Cornell-Feist report a rising demand for their services. States and charter school associations are also taking steps to educate boards.

The Idaho Charter School Network, for instance, dispatches volunteers from charter schools there to do “team assessments” of network schools that request it. Using four “areas of excellence” defined jointly with California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Oregon, the teams evaluate schools and their boards and produce recommendations for improvement. The network then offers training tailored to a school’s needs.

In Utah, charter school leaders have formed a group called CharterSTAR that trains board members in their proper roles and responsibilities.

The federally funded National Resource Center on Charter School Finance & Governance has outlined those and other promising board practices in a recent governance report.

Authorities on the subject say that as more attention is being paid to the need for stronger charter school boards, promising strategies are emerging.

Charter schools are becoming “savvier” about deliberately building boards of professionals with high-level skills—such as in real estate or accounting—that can be resources to the schools, says Wohlstetter of USC’s Center on Educational Governance.

New Orleans is developing a recruiting system designed to ease the shortage of board members that the city experienced when it tried to get charter schools in place after Hurricane Katrina disrupted the school system in 2005, and to ensure that board members have strong skills. Cornell-Feist works with New Schools for New Orleans, which has incubated many charters, to hold open forums to find interested candidates, and to hunt among respected community members to build a “bank” of those qualified and interested. An initial orientation acquaints candidates with the duties of the position.

Then comes what Cornell-Feist calls “speeddating.” Charter school representatives sit at tables around the periphery of a high school gym, and potential board candidates rotate around the circuit, talking with them to gauge a good mutual fit. She says the process represents “some powerful board-building” and fuels her optimism that capable boards can be the “unsung heroes” of school reform in needy urban areas. But she still is uneasy that so many board members lack effective preparation.

“As charter schools grow, and as we get networks of charter schools, boards are overseeing $20 million and $30 million of public money, and they haven’t received training,” she said. “It’s a weighty thing.”

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Many Charter Boards Seen as Unprepared

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