My colleague, Adam Emerson, recently penned a piece on rethinking charter school governance; specifically, how charter school governing entities (i.e., school boards) are structured and the pros and cons associated with different arrangements. It is a good piece, but I would argue that structure means nothing without capacity.
We have an internal saying within our charter school authorizing operation: “As the board goes, so goes the school.”
More often than not this proves to be the case, which is why board capacity – and by that I mean the collective strength of the school’s board to govern a fiscally, organizationally and academically healthy school that is achieving its goals for students - is critical.
Have a high performing charter school? Chances are it’s got a savvy board whose membership consists of mission-aligned individuals with diverse professional expertise and experience that is leveraged to advance a strategic and defined vision, and achieve a specific set of goals.
As the board goes, so goes the school
School not doing so well? Probably the issues start and end with the board, and will fester as long as the board lets them.
Adam touches on this issue by pointing out that education management companies and other service providers sometimes control charter school boards (as opposed to the board controlling the vendor). He’s absolutely right; this happens and it shouldn’t. However, to place the blame squarely on the vendors who contractually formalize (sometimes egregious) arrangements advantageous to the vendor with
“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
Ohio’s urban school districts, like many others across the country, face a slow burning governance crisis. Elected school boards in cities like Columbus, Dayton and Youngstown are proving incapable of providing the leadership their cities, schools, families and children need to be successful. In Dayton, for example, long-time board member Yvonne Isaacs summed up the challenge when she told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2012, “There is really no continuity in terms of the vision and the direction of the district…I think what we have lost is the ability to collaborate and to set vision.” Youngstown’s dysfunction is legendary and it faces a state takeover.
But, no city in Ohio displays better the dysfunctionality of big city elected school boards than does Columbus. Columbus City Schools is a district in turmoil. Mayor Michael Coleman spelled out the challenges in a recent Columbus Dispatch op-ed thusly:
“The children of Columbus City Schools need our help. Forty-seven percent of kids enrolled in the district attend schools receiving a D or F grade by the Ohio Department of Education, while just 21 percent go to A or B schools. The district ranks near the very bottom statewide in terms of how much a student learns in a given year.
State and federal investigations into allegations of student-data manipulation hang like a black cloud over the district. The results threaten to further lower the academic-performance scores of our schools, and administrators could face indictment.
Richard (Dick) Ross was sworn into today by state board of education president Debe Terhar as Ohio’s 37th State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The ceremony took place at the Reynoldsburg City High School (just east of Columbus). Dr. Ross takes over the leadership reigns of the Ohio Department of Education after serving as Governor Kasich’s director of 21st Century Education for the last two years. While in the Governor’s office Ross helped to craft the state’s A-F report card, the 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee, and the new school funding plan being debated in the legislature.
Ross is the fourth state superintendent in two years, and enters the department during a time of change, challenges and opportunity. Ohio is revamping its school funding system, implementing new academic standards through the Common Core in English Language Arts and Mathematics, new standards in science and social studies, and putting into place new assessments through PARCC. Ohio is also a school choice hotbed, and is expected to see continued growth in both charter school students and students receiving public vouchers to attend private schools. These programs are under much scrutiny and could use improvements to their accountability and oversight.
Much of the department’s senior leadership has turned over in recent years and a big part of Ross’ early efforts will need to be around building his senior leadership team. He is the man for the job as