Charter boards, know thy duty

In my recent policy brief arguing for a reboot of charter school governance, I said that states need to create the right policy environment to ensure that management companies aren’t acting as puppeteers determining all the moves of a charter school and controlling the governing boards that ought to be in charge. When boards are mere rubber stamps, questions about accountability, incentives, and conflicts of interest are sure to follow (look at the calamity that has befallen the American Indian Model charter schools in California to see how an ineffectual and subservient board can crash even the highest flying charter).

But as my colleague Kathryn Mullen Upton pointed out yesterday, there’s plenty of blame to go around when problems like this surface. Charter boards that agree to arrangements that effectively make them subordinate to managers and vendors are as much at fault, said Upton, who oversees the Fordham Foundation’s charter authorizing operations in Ohio. Moreover, authorizers that grant a charter without even looking at the management agreement bear responsibility, too.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has recommended policies that explicitly assert the independence of the boards that ordinarily hold the charter and ultimately answer to the public. These include performance contracts that not only show how a board will assess a vendor’s performance but will terminate the contract if necessary. And there ought to be laws, just as in Florida, that explain how a governing board will maintain an arm’s-length relationship with a management company.

But these laws don’t guarantee a high-functioning board—one that understands its fiduciary responsibility, knows the difference between oversight and management, and is able to detect and avoid conflicts of interest.

“Strong boards recognize and acknowledge their weaknesses and take action to address the issues,” Upton writes. “Weak boards often tinker at the edges, thereby contributing to organizational malaise, which often tacitly exacerbates the problem(s).”

So what can help? Upton offers up some practical, and sensible, solutions:

For authorizers, try to catch the issues up front, before granting a charter. For fledgling boards new to the charter school world (and ideally in the concept phase), read everything and be able to tap the expertise of a financial analyst and a lawyer before signing anything. And, contact schools that a vendor you’re considering works with and find out what their experience has been. For existing boards, analyze your performance at least once a year: are you meeting your goals as a board and as a school? Most importantly, are students and taxpayers getting a return on their investment in you?

Some very weak boards have done some very serious damage to the image and efficacy of charter schools over the last twenty years. Better and stronger charter school laws can do more to ensure that the board is in charge, but it’s up to the board to govern effectively. “We have an internal saying within our charter school authorizing operation,” Upton says. “‘As the board goes, so goes the school.’”

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