The board ultimatum

Brian L. Carpenter

The Ohio Department of Education's recent state report card illuminated continuing academic problems in both public district and charter schools. The report card comes on the heels of newspaper stories highlighting auditing and recordkeeping difficulties in some charter schools. Brian L. Carpenter, chief executive officer of the National Charter Schools Institute, offers some insights into both issues.

For the three people reading this column that haven't seen The Bourne Ultimatum, erstwhile CIA assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is back in theaters this summer, more determined than ever to uncover his true identity and the purpose of the nefarious people who brainwashed him.

The storyline and action are as riveting as the first two movies in the Robert Ludlum series, but for some inexplicable reason, I no sooner left the theater when, "the board ultimatum" popped into my head. As titles go, this is admittedly thin for a pun, but here goes.

Somewhat like the Bourne character, charter-school boards need to understand their identities. Our opponents don't use guns, but the political climate in education sometimes makes opening and operating a charter school feel about as perilous as being fished out of the storm-tossed Mediterranean Sea. Like Jason Bourne, charter schools have enemies. To prevail, charter-school boards must figure out their identities and then discover their reasons for living.

As defined by board expert Dr. John Carver, the board's identity should always be as a representative of the organization's owners. For charter schools, this identity eliminates a host of plausible competing identities in which board members are sometimes cast as representatives of various stakeholders. This is to say, the role of the charter-school board is not to represent the interests of its founders, managers (whether through traditional or innovative arrangements), the second-grade teacher, the booster club, the middle school, the benefactors, the politicians, the labor unions, various board factions, or any other stakeholder. The role of the charter school board is to represent the interests of the public whose votes (through legislators) and money (through taxes) own the school. As a vehicle for education reform, the charter sector will make vast improvements when boards understand their identities as representatives of their public owners.

Once a board understands its identity, it is compelled to pursue its two-fold purpose: ensuring inarguably superior student achievement and unquestionably proper stewardship of money. As an owner mandate, the charter-school board is not permitted to fulfill one responsibility while abrogating the other. Let's briefly evaluate how we're doing.

Some charters are magnificently high-performing schools, such as those described in No Excuses (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2003). Unfortunately, too many are not. That is, in comparison to conventional public-school counterparts, most charter schools are performing at a level less than or merely equal to, the other schools in their states. If after three years in operation a school performs in the bottom quartile of public schools in the state, it has no legitimate claim to superior student achievement.

The charter movement also could stand some improvement on the issue of proper stewardship. Charter-school boards are public organizations; transparency is required. This has implications for a wide range of practices, not the least of which is board members examining their auditor's relationship to management to ensure independence of results and prohibiting the audit trail from going cold by signing over 100 percent of the school's revenues to their education-service provider (a.k.a. operator).

Who is ultimately responsible to the owners for student performance and financial stewardship in a charter school? The board.

Like the Bourne character, charter proponents are fighting a constant onslaught of people and organizations trying to kill chartering. One of the reasons, however, that proponents are unable to push back harder in response to political enemies and public antipathy, is that, nationally (and in Ohio), too many of our schools leave much to be desired.

Fortunately, the charter sector doesn't have to tolerate mediocrity and poor results. The performance contract between the school and its sponsor requires the school to either perform and adhere to good stewardship or go out of business.

That is the board's ultimatum.

Brian L. Carpenter is chief executive officer of the National Charter Schools Institute. He appeared at a training session for charter-school boards of trustees in May in Columbus sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Carpenter is the author of "Charter School Board University: An Introductory Course to Effective Charter School Governance."