Governance in the Charter School Sector: Time for a Reboot

“Autonomy, in exchange for accountability” has been the mantra of charter school theorists since before the first charter opened its doors in Minnesota in 1991. But, far too often over the last two decades this mantra has been more ideal than reality. Getting the balance right between autonomy and accountability has been so hard because there has been much confusion over the appropriate roles and responsibilities of the non-profit charter school governing boards, school operators, and authorizers in the autonomy/accountability deal.

Fordham’s new policy brief by Adam Emerson, “Governance in the Charter School Sector: Time for a Reboot,” tackles the governance issue head-on. One section in particular is especially interesting to me because of our role as a charter school authorizer in the Buckeye State. Ohio, and other states with strong charter school networks (both non-profit CMOs and for-profit EMOs), has struggled to balance the power and influence of school operators with that of their non-profit governing board. Too often boards are seen as little more than a necessary evil while operators run the show. It is not at all uncommon for charter school operators in Ohio to “hire” board members, and then use them as a rubber stamp for all school operations.  

As a state approved charter school authorizer in Ohio we have always held a different view. Our position has been that the non-profit governing boards are independent, and clearly in charge of, any outside organization that they engage to run their education programs. It has been our position that the non-profit governing board in fact owns the school and can fire its operator if they feel they are not receiving the services they need for their school(s) and students.

We, in fact, ran into this exact situation recently in Dayton when the national charter school operator EdisonLearning, and the local governing board had differing views about the future of two schools moving forward (see below). We supported the decision of the governing board to move on without Edison after the board’s contracts expired with Edison. In that particular case, it was clear to the governing board and the authorizer (Fordham) that ultimate responsibility for the schools rested with the governing board and not with the operator.   

However, this position is not well established in state law, and is not the accepted view of many in Ohio’s charter program. Under state law a school operator, with the approval of either the sponsor or state board of education, can in fact “remove the existing governing authority and the operator shall appoint a new governing authority for the school. The new governing authority shall assume responsibility for the school…” Charter operators in Ohio can fire their governing boards, which turns the charter school accountability compact on its head.

Further, there have been political efforts over the years to further diminish the oversight power of both governing authorities and authorizers. In 2011, for example, legislative language passed the Ohio House, but was later rejected by the Senate, that would have:

•Permitted for-profit corporations or individuals to start and run charter schools, and take away a requirement that they must be monitored by an authorizer;

•Permitted a charter school’s governing authority to give up all its rights and responsibilities to an operator; and

•Supported the operator’s right to sue if the charter school governing authority tried to terminate its contract.

The charter deal of “freedom for accountability” is a work in progress, and there are some powerful voices in the charter universe who would like to rewrite the deal entirely. Rather than “freedom for accountability” there is a strong undercurrent of “let the market reign supreme.” In this view, operators should be free of all external accountability beyond market demand. If the kids show up, that is all that matters. Emerson’s “Governance in the Charter School Sector: Time for a Reboot” makes clear why such laissez faire notions of charter school accountability miss the mark. Parent demand for schools is very important for obvious reasons, but so is evidence that the kids are actually learning something.  

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