Rebooting charters: Charter school board capacity essential to school success

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 charter school governing boards misses the point. The school boards who agree to these terms are just as much at fault, and authorizers that acquiesce (or grant a charter without even looking at the management agreement) bear some responsibility, too.

Capacity is something that requires ongoing maintenance and at least an annual critique

Capacity is something that requires ongoing maintenance and at least an annual critique. Strong boards recognize and acknowledge their weaknesses and take action to address the issues; weak boards often tinker at the edges, thereby contributing to organizational malaise, which often tacitly exacerbates the problem(s).

So what’s the solution? For authorizers, try to catch the issues up front, before granting a charter. For fledgling boards new to the charter school world (and ideally in the concept phase), read everything and be able to tap the expertise of a financial analyst and a lawyer before signing anything. And, contact schools that a vendor you’re considering works with and find out what their experience has been. For existing boards, analyze your performance at least once a year: are you meeting your goals as a board and as a school? Most importantly, are students and taxpayers getting a return on their investment in you?  

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