When the charter school movement started twenty-plus years ago, charters represented a radical innovation in governance: School districts would no longer enjoy an “exclusive franchise” on local public schools; they would compete with public, independent, autonomous (but accountable) charter schools too.

Charter governance brief
In the last twenty years, American education and its charter sector have evolved in important ways.

Much has happened in the charter sector since then—in fact, what began as a community-led, mom-and-pop movement has evolved to include a burgeoning assemblage of charter school networks, as well. But the laws ruling charter school governance remain largely the same. It’s time for a reboot in order to address three critical problems.

First, state laws and authorizer policies often require a full-fledged governing board for every charter school, and these policies make no exception for high-performing charter networks (such as KIPP and Rocketship Education). Thus, replicating at scale is difficult. In fact, only ten states explicitly allow for networks to operate multiple schools under the oversight of one governing board* and three states (Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Iowa) explicitly prohibit the practice.

Second, management organizations—especially for-profits—often control their schools’ governing boards, leading to serious questions about accountability and conflicts of interest. The Fordham Institute, both as an education think tank and a charter school authorizer in Ohio, firmly believes that governing boards and management organizations should be independent of one another—and the former should be in charge of the latter.

As my colleague Terry Ryan explained recently, too many Ohio charter schools have been controlled by their management organizations, rather than by their governing boards. This explains much of the low performance (and high-profile scandals) that the Buckeye State charter movement has spent years cleaning up.

Lastly, charter governance is most outdated when it comes to technology. Most virtual charter schools are authorized by local school boards, which collect massive fees to oversee what are often statewide schools. This creates a perverse incentive to look the other way when quality is weak—especially if the money is rolling in and the school mostly serves “other people’s children.”

To answer these challenges, we recommend the following:

  • Allow existing high-performing networks to organize multiple schools under single boards. KIPP’s geographically based “governing pods” are a good way to develop a locally based governance structure while still drawing on a network’s brand name.
  • Require performance-based contracts between governing boards and education management organizations (EMOs) and charter management organizations (CMOs). These contracts should incorporate explicit terms regarding evaluations, oversight, compensation, and conditions for contract renewal and termination. Policies should also outline how the board will maintain an arm’s-length relationship with its management company.
  • Require statewide virtual schools to report to a statewide authorizing entity, such as an independent charter commission or state school board, rather than a local board of education. States that are serious about online learning must provide a governance model that can meet the changing requirements that technology brings to education.

Twenty years later, charter schools remain the most promising governance innovation in American public education. Let’s make sure the governance of charter schools themselves is up to the task of even greater charter quality and quantity in the years ahead.

Download Governance in the charter school sector: Time for a reboot to learn more.

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