Charter School Boards Vital to Charter School Quality
April 10, 2007
As a sponsor of nine schools in Ohio, we have learned (the hard way, at times) that effective charter school management and governance require four essential elements: sound state policy, including appropriate funding; diligent and attentive sponsors; well-trained and highly capable school leadership; and an engaged and knowledgeable governing board. A host of views (including our own--see here) have been expressed about the first three, yet precious little attention has been paid to charter school board governance (at least in Ohio). Such attention is long overdue, as we can attest that quality oversight often begins, and sometimes ends, with the quality of a charter school governing board.
Under state law, Ohio’s non-profit charter school boards are tasked with governing and overseeing the management of the school. They are ultimately responsible for selecting its teachers and curriculum, managing its finances, ensuring it performs academically, and answering to the charter school sponsor which “licensed” it. Sometimes these governing authorities outsource the school’s day-to-day operations to other groups, non-profit or for-profit, but they remain ultimately accountable for the school’s success. This is not unlike the role that traditional school boards undertake. The main difference is that district school boards are elected, whereas charter school boards are comprised of individuals who are invited or volunteer to serve.
Yet in both cases school board members freely elect to take on the momentous, time-consuming, and often unappreciated duty of seeing that schools provide a high quality education to their students. Despite much effort, neither charter nor district school boards have perfected the process of effective governance. The Harte-Crossroads fiasco (see here) and other charter debacles owe their headline status, in some part, to inattentive and/or incompetent governing boards. And Ohio’s academically and fiscally distressed traditional districts, and more recently, the contentious exchanges among Toledo Public School Board members (see here and here), reveal that elected school boards also struggle mightily to carry out their solemn duties of overseeing public education.
For those who work with or care deeply about improving Ohio’s 300-plus charter schools, perhaps the most expedient way to explore effective charter school board governance is to answer three simple (though not easy) questions.
1. Whom do charter school boards serve?
To this question, some charter board members will no doubt respond “the students,” “the parents,” and perhaps even the “teachers and staff” or “the community.” While there is a kernel of truth in each response, the fact of the matter is that charter school governing boards serve the taxpayers of Ohio first, their sponsors second, and then and only then the other aforementioned parties. Taxpayers’ wishes are embodied in Ohio’s constitution mandating a “thorough and efficient” education for its children. A board’s contract with a sponsor further defines this mandate through expectations of gains in academic performance, competent fiscal stewardship, and compliance with a host of state and federal rules, regulations and guidelines. When these demands are met--and met fully, it goes that students, parents, teachers and the community are being well-served, too.
However, we are the first to admit that some charter school boards have acted as if keeping parents and students “happy” supersedes guaranteeing the financial and academic well-being of the schools they oversee. In extreme cases such as the recently shuttered Harte-Crossroads in Columbus and defunct International Preparatory School in Cleveland (see here), board members presumably felt that simply doing what the school’s leaders wished fulfilled their oversight responsibilities. Innocent or not, such actions have resulted in millions of dollars in poor, sometimes fraudulent, financial decisions--though too few (if any) academic benefits for students.
2. What are a charter school board’s responsibilities?
An effective charter school board generally concerns itself with three issues: the school’s academic performance, the school’s fiscal performance, and the school’s compliance with the terms of its sponsorship contract (defined in part by state and federal law). If a charter school has not performed academically, it is the board’s responsibility to reevaluate or replace the school leader or management company contracted to deliver the school’s academic program. Yet too often this translates into micro-managing teachers or telling school leaders how to conduct the school’s business, when in reality it should mean analyzing and evaluating student achievement data, academic programs, state and federal law, and how all of these relate to the board’s performance contract with the school’s sponsor.
Similarly, it is the responsibility of a charter school board to ensure the fiscal health of its school. It can do so by hiring qualified, independent financial service providers; by demanding and poring over the school’s financial reports and audits; by drafting transparent and conservative fiscal policy; and by crafting a long-term fiscal strategy to guarantee the school will operate in years to come.
Unfortunately, many charter school boards (in Ohio and elsewhere) focus on the trees and not the forest. Valuable board meeting time is spent covering a dizzying array of topics, the majority of which have little to do with the academic, fiscal or operational health of the school. The result can be long, drawn-out meetings that cover territory better suited for the school leader and his/her team. One way board members can avoid such marathon sessions is to set sensible board policies defining the scope of their responsibilities (as opposed to the school leader’s)--and then live by these policies.
3. Who should serve on a charter school board?
Here, it may be more appropriate to begin with those persons who should not sit on a charter school board. They include school staff members (excluding the school leader); relatives or close friends of school leaders and staff; individuals with personal or financial ties to a school’s management company (if one is used); and anyone who might use the board position to manage the day-to-day affairs of a school’s operation. To be sure, there may be many well-meaning and thoughtful individuals in the aforementioned categories, yet all could face potentially debilitating conflicts of interest as charter school board members. Ohio recently addressed some of these potential conflicts in House Bill 79, which placed a number of new restrictions on charter school board membership.
In Ohio and across the nation, high quality charter schools are governed by independent charter school boards comprised of dedicated, top-notch professionals who, in addition to caring deeply about the success of the school and the students in it, bring an array of vital skill sets to the job. As most will aver, school board members are faced with a slew of academic, financial, and legal issues that they may or may not fully understand at first blush. And while a board may lean on the school leader or treasurer for advice, neither is a substitute for having an accomplished business leader, attorney and educator sitting on the board. Indeed, without such available expertise, boards can easily overlook key information or simply neglect to ask tough questions that, down the road, may prove to be make-or-break issues for the school.
Serving on a charter school board is both rewarding and challenging. Those who opt to do so deserve our respect and assistance (see below). And while charter schools will always run the risk of failure and even closure (as intended in their inception), smart governance by a savvy school board can help separate the deeply troubled from the high-performing, the spectacular failures from spectacular successes.
To assist charter school board members in their efforts, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Ohio Department of Education, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the Educational Service Center of Franklin County are hosting Charter School Board Governance 101, to be held Friday, May 4, 2007 in Columbus. The event is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Attendance is free, but registration is required no later than April 27, 2007. Complete details can be found here, and a registration form is available here.