In my recent policy brief arguing for a reboot of charter school governance, I said that states need to create the right policy environment to ensure that management companies aren’t acting as puppeteers determining all the moves of a charter school and controlling the governing boards that ought to be in charge. When boards are mere rubber stamps, questions about accountability, incentives, and conflicts of interest are sure to follow (look at the calamity that has befallen the American Indian Model charter schools in California to see how an ineffectual and subservient board can crash even the highest flying charter).
But as my colleague Kathryn Mullen Upton pointed out yesterday, there’s plenty of blame to go around when problems like this surface. Charter boards that agree to arrangements that effectively make them subordinate to managers and vendors are as much at fault, said Upton, who oversees the Fordham Foundation’s charter authorizing operations in Ohio. Moreover, authorizers that grant a charter without even looking at the management agreement bear responsibility, too.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has recommended policies that explicitly assert the independence of the boards that ordinarily hold the charter and ultimately answer to the public. These include performance contracts that not only show how a board will assess a vendor’s performance but will terminate the contract if necessary. And there ought to be laws, just as in Florida, that explain
It may seem absurd that one of California’s worst-performing school districts can kill the state’s finest charter school network. But that is the reality facing the 650 mostly poor and minority, but very high-achieving students enrolled at the American Indian Model charter schools. The Oakland Unified School District voted 4-3 last month to shut down the network after a state audit reported that a lack of financial controls allowed the charter’s former principal and chief executive, Ben Chavis, to improperly enrich himself with millions of dollars of school business.
It is, however, hard to see how the Oakland district could have responded differently. The audit, which was issued in June 2012, concluded that Chavis was able to channel $3.8 million from school accounts to his personal business interests—mostly because the charter’s governing board “failed to maintain and exercise its responsibilities, authority, and control.”
Indeed, the audit showed that a charismatic and assertive school leader had control over American Indian’s governing board instead of the other way around. Auditors found multiple examples of self-dealing and conflicts of interest in transactions that benefitted Chavis’ consulting, real estate, and construction enterprises—transactions that often put Chavis in the position as landlord to the schools he led. But there were no evidence that the board approved these dealings or ever put them out for competitive bidding. “The lack of due diligence and internal controls by the governing board has effectively granted [Chavis] and his spouse unrestricted
Compromise is rarely considered a political virtue. That’s why political analyst Peter Wehner made a distinction between compromise and prudence. “Compromise can’t be judged in the abstract,” Wehner wrote for Commentary. “It can only be assessed in particular circumstances. It takes wisdom and statesmanship to discern when to hold firm (on fundamental principles) and when to give ground (on tactics and secondary issues).”
The description helps us parse two different outcomes on school choice legislation in two states: Mississippi and Tennessee. In the former, at least one charter school advocate bemoaned the “compromised bill” that went last week to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a bill that finally allows start-up charters in the Magnolia State and an independent state authorizer but also allows better-performing districts to effectively neuter that new state body. In the latter, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam decided last week to pull his favored voucher bill before letting any legislative members of his party amend it. Haslam sought a limited voucher program for low-income students in low-performing districts, whereas Republicans lawmakers wanted to enlarge it to serve more families.
No doubt Haslam wants private school choice in the Volunteer State. Last year, he directed education commissioner Kevin Huffman to lead a task force to study how a voucher program would best work and embraced the concept in January when he appeared with Jeb Bush at a forum on education reform. But he
Andy Rotherham deserves respect as one of the most thoughtful proponents of education reform, as well as an impressive institution-builder. He and I probably agree on 90 percent of the issues, though we have sparred at times over the federal role, the balance between “excellence and equity,” and sundry other topics.
My greatest frustration, though, has been his unwillingness to offer full-throated support for school vouchers.
Maybe he’s finally ready. In a blog post yesterday, he predicted that if current reform efforts stall, the future will bring a “low-accountability environment coupled with much more choice” and pointed to the Indiana voucher program (recently upheld by that state’s Supreme Court and hailed by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post) as a sign of things to come.
What Andy may not fully appreciate is that Indiana’s voucher program has accountability in spades. As David Stuit and Sy Doan explain in their recent report for Fordham, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? , the Hoosier State has an “annual performance-accountability rating system” for participating private schools that is based on the results of state assessments—the same tests that public school pupils take. Indeed, the fact that private schools will soon be held accountable under Common Core standards and assessments has become a major issue in the Hoosier State—because it gives palpitations to the right, not the left! (Other recently enacted private-school-choice programs, including those in Louisiana and Alabama, also include
About the Editor
Director, Program on Parental Choice
Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning.
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