Creating New Leaders in the Charter Sector

The charter community in the Buckeye State recently received some welcome news (see here and here ). After costly, long-drawn-out litigation, the Ohio Supreme Court dismissed the teacher unions' multiple challenges to the constitutionality of the state's charter school program in a sweeping and powerful opinion. The ruling clears the way for some long-overdue changes to Ohio's charter school policies, many of which we've spelled out in a report (see here) requested by the governor, key legislators, and state education leaders.

Yet what is more difficult to tackle--and impossible to legislate--is the issue of leadership in the K-12 education field itself, particularly in the charter sector.

All kinds of charter schools are beset by leadership problems, four of which are ubiquitous enough to mention here. First, the paucity of training systems and career paths. Like explorers in the wilderness, charters are still cutting new paths through the scrub, and nowhere more than in regard to personnel. Where does one learn to become a successful charter-school leader? Where does one study? Apprentice? Find a mentor?

Second, American public education, for reasons that are understandable yet lamentable, has not cultivated many entrepreneurial people in its ranks. It's fair to say that the more entrepreneurial their temperament and aspirations, the less likely they are to enter or remain in public education. Entrepreneurs simply do not thrive in so heavily regulated and standardized an environment. So when entrepreneurial opportunities arise, as in the charter sector, there's not much bench strength, not a lot of minor league teams from which players can be brought into the majors.

Third, governance problems that cause and exacerbate leadership problems. I'm referring to transient, casual, disengaged charter school board members on the one hand, and tyrannical, bullying, meddlesome board members on the other. To management organizations that sometimes think they can parachute a person into unfamiliar territory and have him/her lead a successful school. To the tendency in some charter schools for the whole curriculum and instructional strategy to exist in a single person's head, such that when he/she leaves, the curriculum does, too. And I'm talking about burnout and transition problems, where a school's workaholic founder poops out or gets ill and there's nobody obvious in line to take over.  

Fourth are externalities that make charter school leadership so onerous, and sometimes so painful, that good people don't want to do it for long, if at all. I'm talking about political pushback, community hostility, bad publicity, regulatory creep and, especially in the NCLB era, accountability demands that aren't always compatible with the education vision, spirit or human needs that catalyzed the charter school in the first place.

What I've been describing are systemic or structural problems. Now I venture into more sensitive, self-critical territory with a trio of leadership problems inside the charter sector itself. They're not widespread, but it doesn't take much of this sort of thing to tarnish the charter movement as a whole. I'm talking about well-meaning incompetence, profiteering, and the placing of adult interests ahead of children's.

Well-meaning incompetence. I've seen too many charter schools where the people in charge are lovely, caring, honorable individuals who want the best for kids and earnestly believe that they can run a school that will benefit kids, but who cannot parse good curriculum and instruction from bad, who neglect or fail to analyze key student achievement data, and who may also be inept business managers. These folks often run schools that parents like because they're welcoming and safe. But all too often these are schools in which very little learning occurs.

Profiteering. To be blunt, I've met a few too many people who are into charter schools to get rich. They do this in various ways, not just direct salary, but by, for example, owning the building that the school leases, employing multiple family members, or selling expensive, wraparound daycare services and suchlike. Sometimes they own the EMO that operates their school--and many other schools.

Placing adult interests ahead of the kids. Besides financial greed, adult interests may include vanity, ego, ethnic solidarity, a job for one's cousin or spouse, a contract for one's in-laws, political ambition, and so on. A frequent complaint about public education is that it tends to place the interests of adults ahead of those of children. Today, we can see this happening in some charter schools as well.

We must take these challenges seriously. A vibrant and healthy charter-school program cannot get away with good intentions and lofty goals; it has to deliver results. In the NCLB era, a serious education reform can no longer make it by invoking its innovativeness or its experimental nature. It has to produce academic achievement. It has to close gaps. It has to replicate success. It has to root out failure. And particularly in the face of all the political enemies that it faces, it has to remain above reproach, ethically sound--and self-policing when there are transgressions.

In Ohio, we're not there yet. There's too much well-meaning mediocrity. There aren't nearly enough academically strong charter schools. Few of the good ones are replicating. Few of the bad ones are being closed or non-renewed. And there's too much adult interest-serving.

So, how best to tackle these challenges? There's no single, simple solution. I'm going to outline five ideas that at least point toward partial solutions.

  1. We need to create some human capital development organizations or networks in the education field, not just for charter schools but for all manner of entrepreneurial organizations and activities in the K-12 domain. I'm picturing a combination of recruitment and placement services with networking opportunities, career development pipelines and support groups.
  2. Develop some university-based programs for training charter leaders and other entrepreneurs for this sector. Such programs will more likely be found in business schools than education schools, and that's probably as it should be.
  3. Off-campus we need more by way of internships and mentorships for leaders and future leaders. I'm talking development of leaders along the lines of what KIPP, for example, does to prepare its next generation of school heads--by having them spend a summer in a university-based program, then half a year as interns and apprentices in successful KIPP schools, before going off to start their own schools.
  4. This field cries for more expert consultants (including personnel headhunters) to help schools and other education organizations find and deploy the talent they need, diagnose their organizational needs, tailor their structures and solve their problems.
  5. Since the education profession today doesn't have enough of the sorts of entrepreneurs that we need, while we're developing more of them within the field, let's also engage in more vigorous recruitment of entrepreneurs from other sectors.

It's been nearly ten years since Ohio began chartering--15 since the first charter school opened in Minnesota. The state's high court has signaled that the program is here to stay, and the opportunity to capitalize on the potential offered by the state's charters is clear. Yet without creative and sustainable leadership, charter schools' success will continue to be hamstrung by poor management and doddering incompetence--however well-intentioned. We can and should continue to debate whether school and sponsor standards are sufficient and whether cumbersome regulations are adequately rolled back. But no argument is necessary with regards to developing and supporting capable school leaders. There aren't enough of them today. We need to make sure that we have plenty more tomorrow.

This editorial is adapted from a keynote address delivered on October 27, 2006 at the annual conference of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

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