A study in bad charter school governance

The charter school movement has inspired a lot of enthusiasm for multi-school networks and their ability to expand, but now it’s time to talk more about how these networks are governed.

Ben Gamla Charter School Clearwater
Why is the successful Ben Gamla Charter closing its doors after one year?
Photo from the Jewish Press of Pinella County

To be sure, it’s less exciting to talk about the configuration and operation of governing boards than it is to talk about scaling up successful charter school models. But this much is true: It’s no fun dissecting the breakdown in governance that has led to a charter school’s closure.

That’s the current reality in Clearwater, Florida. There, the Ben Gamla Charter School is closing its doors after one year of operation not because it performed poorly (most of its fifty students scored well on the state assessment) or because of financial problems (it was thousands of dollars in the black) but because it wrested too much control from its parent foundation.

The National Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation said as much. The South Florida–based foundation has opened eight Hebrew-immersion charter schools throughout the Sunshine State in the last six years, and members of its own board often have overseen the operations and spending at these schools. The foundation installed a board of local directors at its Clearwater school after the authorizing school district, in its review of Ben Gamla’s charter application, raised concerns about the lack of local residents in a governing role.

But it seems this local board took its job too seriously. Peter Deutsch, the founder of the Ben Gamla network and a former Congressman from South Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times that the local board ended up making all the decisions about the school. The foundation, he said, wanted more control.

When the academic year ended in June, the foundation severed ties with the school, which effectively closed it. The foundation is the one that held the charter, and the authorizing school district wasn’t about to transfer that charter to a local board that didn’t go through the original application process.

So now the parents of fifty children must find another school by August, and that’s due mostly to some common entanglements that the charter sector and states should address as charter-management organizations (CMOs) seek to expand.

CMOs have doubled their reach in the last three years, and many organizations want to open more schools without having to recruit trustees to oversee each of their locations. But many state laws and authorizer policies won’t let charter networks operate multiple schools with a single (sometimes distant) board.

I explored this topic earlier this year in a policy brief for the Fordham Institute, in which I recommended that states and authorizers give high-performing charter networks some flexibility in how they govern their schools. But that’s not wholly applicable to Ben Gamla. Some of the network’s schools have excelled. Others have been average. It wasn’t unreasonable for the school district here to demand a heightened level of local direction and accountability.

But, nonetheless, the school district has abandoned the local board it wanted, and a successful school is closing as a result. Moreover, the Ben Gamla corporate foundation has shown that it was unwilling to work through any tension between its larger mission and the aspirations of one of its schools.

That leaves the national charter movement with two big takeaways: 1) A school district that demands a local board for every CMO-operated school in its boundaries had better be prepared to work through the unintended consequences of such an action (in this case, a corporate board unwilling to cede control to a local board), and 2) not every CMO is skilled enough to manage complications with school governance that come with expansion.

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