Education Week - June 3, 2015 - (Page 10)
Charter Sector Challenged by Caliber of School Boards
Efforts to improve
governance catch on
By Arianna Prothero
A District of Columbia charter
school spent millions contracting for
services with a company owned by
the school's founder.
And an Ohio charter spent more on
rent than staff salaries-money paid
to a company that was owned by the
same education management group
that ran the school.
Those two cases illustrate a recurring
issue in the charter school sector:
poorly prepared school boards that fail
to stop questionable deals or flat-out
When charter schools struggle or
get shut down, weak governance is
often the source of trouble. And many
times, that issue is linked directly to
the charter school's board, an entity
that even many charter supporters
say too often flies under the radar of
Efforts to professionalize charter
boards and raise the caliber of the
people serving on them are gaining
traction in some corners of the charter
sector, even if policy and research focused
on the role of those local boards
Last month, a group of sitting and
soon-to-be seated charter school
board members-lawyers, government
workers, and researchers
among them-descended on Chavez
Prep Middle School, a charter in the
nation's capital, as part of a training
workshop designed specifically for
members of charter boards.
"I don't think there are enough
good charter school boards because
there hasn't been enough emphasis
from leaders and authorizers on
having strong boards," said Carrie C.
Irvin, the president and co-founder of
Charter Board Partners, a national
nonprofit organization that provides
training to the boards and the sponsor
of the recent workshop in Washington.
(Charter Board Partners is
supported in part by the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation and the Walton
Family Foundation. Education
Week receives support from Gates
for coverage of the implementation of
college- and career-ready standards
and from Walton for coverage of parent-empowerment
Taking participants to a local charter
school helps drive home the point
that a board serves students before all
else, Ms. Irvin said.
Having nonprofit boards run individual
or small groups of schools,
instead of a single, elected board running
an entire district, is one of the
biggest innovations of the charter
movement, some advocates say.
"Charter or no, every school is
unique, so there is tremendous benefit
to making decisions as close as possible
to the kids," Ms. Irvin said. "Boards
are able to make much nimbler decisions
in response to the particular
needs of students."
Although that may be the case,
such a setup can limit broader community
input because charter board
members aren't elected by voters.
"District school boards, however
imperfect, allow for that," said Christopher
Lubienski, a professor of education
at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. "Obviously the
number of people who vote for them
is pretty low, but they were designed
to reflect the needs and preferences of
the wider community."
This form of governance also
can bring a unique set of problems,
caused by an evolving and often unclear
chain of accountability among
authorizer, board, and management
company, said Luis A. Huerta, an
associate professor of education and
public policy at Teachers College, Columbia
"The majority [of states] have no
regulation that outlines the operations
or makeup of charter school governing
boards," Mr. Huerta said. "Ultimately,
I'm not convinced that board professionalism
would necessarily mitigate
The board holds the charter -or the
contract-with the authorizer for the
school and is in charge of big-picture
operations such as governance, strategic
planning, and financial oversight.
That last item has been a particular
problem for the sector, whose schools
receive public funding but operate independently.
year, the board for the Community
Academy Public Charter Schools,
in Washington, came under fire for
hiring a company belonging to the
school's founder. That company was
paid $2.1 million in 2014 to provide
maintenance and administrative services,
among other duties.
"But it turned out the company only
10 | EDUCATION WEEK | June 3, 2015 | www.edweek.org
had three employees: the founder,
his wife, and his stepson, and they
weren't performing many of those
services," said Scott D. Pearson, the
executive director of the D.C. Public
Charter School Board, the city's sole
authorizer, which decided to shutter
the school for fiscal mismanagement.
"A lot of people don't realize how
much of a responsibility service on a
nonprofit board is," Mr. Pearson said.
"They don't realize that they have serious
Mr. Pearson told participants in
the recent training session that the
No. 1 mistake board members make
is being disengaged when they are
responsible for being stewards of the
"If it feels fishy to you, it probably
is," he told the attendees. "This is taxpayer
money, and it's a lot. The total
budget for city charter schools [in the
District of Columbia] is $700 million."
Situations like the one with Community
Academy Public Charter
Schools don't just affect a single campus.
Proponents worry that they tarnish
the whole charter movement.
Ohio has also had a spate of charter
school scandals in recent years, to the
point where the governor and several
state legislators, both Democrats and
Republicans, are now pushing to retool
the state charter school law. Bills
that would increase oversight and
accountability are making their way
through the Statehouse.
Lack of Expertise
One of the organizations backing
tighter state oversight of Ohio's charter
sector is the Thomas B. Fordham
Institute, a Washington-based think
tank. Its Ohio branch also authorizes
charter schools in the state.
"Almost always when you see these
meltdowns, the board does not understand
some very basic things,"
said Kathryn Mullen Upton, who is
in charge of authorizing at Fordham
in Ohio. "Often, they relate to areas
of professional expertise-being able
to read a financial statement and understanding
the state's accountability
She said it's important to have a
diverse group of professions and backgrounds
on a board because the panels
have all the duties and obligations
of a school district. They need lawyers,
real estate agents, and human resources
professionals to complement
the educational expertise of the school
leader, she said.
For that reason, Charter Board
Partners-which joined the Fordham
Institute for a separate board training
in Ohio-also acts as a matchmaker,
recruiting board members and connecting
them with schools.
One such recruit in the District of
Columbia is Blanca Guillen-Woods.
She's a consultant working in education
research. But serving on a charter
board wasn't something Ms. GuillenWoods
thought she was qualified to
do "because I always think of boards
in terms of the financial contributions,
which I'm not really in the position to
help out with as much."
But as a parent of school-age children,
a fluent Spanish-speaker, and
an education professional, Ms. Guillen-Woods,
in the view of Charter
School Partners, was a prime candidate
for a charter board-especially
in the District of Columbia, where the
authorizer is pushing school boards
to use data in more of their decisionmaking.
She's in the process of getting
matched with a board.
Authorizers-or sponsors, as they're
called in Ohio-have come under the
Jason Kling, center, a counselor
and social worker at Chavez Prep
Middle School in the District of
Columbia, talks with prospective
charter school board members
about his role during a recent
tour of the school. The tour was
part of a training course to help
prepare people for service on
charter school boards.
microscope recently as highly publicized
school management issues drive
a greater focus on charter school quality
nationwide. As the charter-granting
entity, the authorizer makes the final
call in whether a school is allowed to
continue operating or is shut down.
But on the other side of any charter
contract is a school board, and that
party seems mostly to escape notice.
As evidence, Ms. Mullen Upton and
Mr. Huerta point to a dearth of policy
and research that makes it hard to
draw any conclusions about the overall
quality and professionalism of
charter boards on a national scale.
Only seven states -Florida, Hawaii,
Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico,
Ohio, and Texas-require charter
school board members to undergo
training, according to the National Association
of Charter School Authorizers.
However, individual authorizers
may require training. Charter associations,
as well as organizations like
Charter Board Partners, may offer
training, but participation, like board
service, is voluntary.
"Hopefully, within the next several
years, there will be more attention on
the importance of that role," said Ms.
Mullen Upton. "At the end of the day,
they are responsible for the ultimate
success or failure of the school."
And, Mr. Huerta added, that may
lead to more accountability: "If there
isn't enough focus, that means they're
off the hook."
T.J. Kirkpatrick for Education Week
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - June 3, 2015
Education Week - June 3, 2015
New S.C. Standards Ease Political Pushback
Summer-Job Demand Outstrips Opportunities
Districts Use Student Insights To Guide Policy, Practice
Charters Look Anew At Teacher Retention
With Common Core, Algebra Course Undergoes a Face-Lift
News in Brief
PARCC Shortens Testing Time, Shifts to Later in the School Year
Ties Deepening Between Schools, After-School Providers
Parent Engagement on Rise As Priority for Schools, Districts
Charter Sector Challenged by Caliber of School Boards
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: The E-Rate Overhaul in 4 Easy Charts
Studies Probe How Students Can Apply Math More Widely
NAEP to Gather Data on Grit, Mindset
Blogs of the Week
Teacher-Retention Data For Charters Still Murky
Stakes High for Bureau of Indian Education’s Overhaul
California Seeks Waiver on Use of Federal Title I Tutoring Money
Blogs of the Week
FRANCESCA STERNFELD: Necessary Lessons, Schools’ Critical Role in Reducing Family Violence
BENJAMIN RILEY: Can Teacher-Educators Learn From Medical-School Reform?
RANDI WEINGARTEN: States Should Ditch ‘Cut Scores’ on New Tests
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
TERRY B. GRIER: Creating a College-Bound Culture in an Urban School District
Education Week - June 3, 2015