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What Do We Know About Charter School Governance, and Why Should We Care?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Michael R. Ford
June 16, 2019

Strong statements from several 2020 presidential candidates have brought the issue of charter school policy into the national political conversation. While political pundits focus on the dichotomous question of whether a candidate is for or against charter schools, the administrative realities of charter school governance are much more nuanced, and worthy of further explanation. But first, what exactly is a charter school?

In concept, a charter school is a public school free from many of the regulations of traditional public schools. A charter school operates under a performance contract with an authorizing entity—the idea being that performance gains are traded for flexibility. If the school performs well it remains open. If it does not, the contract, or charter, can be revoked. Several public administration scholars (including myself) have framed charter school policy as a New Public Management style reform that challenges traditional notions of centralized public management by shifting the accountability function from a democratically elected board to a performance-based metric.  

However, the specifics of charter school policies vary greatly across states, and even within states. In Minnesota, the initial adopter of charter school policy, schools can be authorized by a variety of entities including school districts, universities, and umbrella nonprofit organizations. In other states, like Virginia, school districts are the sole authorizers of charter schools. Funding mechanisms and amounts also differ across states, as do restriction on virtual and for-profit charter schools.

Differences also occur within states. Years ago I worked on an education project in Louisiana and spent a good deal of time trying to make sense of the five different types of charter schools operating in New Orleans. In my state of Wisconsin a charter school may refer to a school authorized by a public district and staffed with unionized district teachers, a school authorized by a public school district but staffed with non-union teachers employed directly by the school, or a school authorized by an independent entity such as the City of Milwaukee or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There are more subtle differences as well. Some charters focus on specific specialties like the arts or sciences, some focus on low-income pupils, while many serve a broad spectrum of students.

The complex reality of charter school policies and schools makes simple condemnation or praise for charter schools unhelpful. Forty-three states have a charter school law on the books. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics there are 7,011 charter schools in operation as of the 2017, up from 4,321 ten years prior. In other words, a substantial and growing number of students are attending publicly funded charter schools, making it necessary to understand how they are governed.

Despite their growth, surprisingly little is known about the administrative governance of charter schools. We know charter school boards tend to be more inward looking and conflict-averse than comparable public school boards. We know the relationship between the charter school board and the school executive director impacts school performance. We know charter school boards are often not representative of the communities they serve, and can struggle to comply with state transparency laws. We know more can be done to train charter school board members. However, all of these studies focus on a specific city, a specific state, or a specific school. Expanding these studies to new policy contexts would go a long way toward establishing the generalizability of what is known.

In a recent article Douglas Ihrke and I draw on what is known about charter school governance to create a framework for utilizing charter boards as an accountability bridge between the school and the public at-large. Our framework includes publicly elected charter school board members, board member term-limits, mandatory public listening sessions, mandatory board member training, and the creation and dissemination of a school board accountability plan. None of these ideas would end the controversy over charter school policies, but they do demonstrate how a constructive discussion regarding the administration of charter schools is possible.

Charter school policies, like other policies rooted in the desire to reinvent government, test traditional notions of publicness and democratic accountability. Blurring the line between public and private also presents an equity challenge. Accordingly it is not surprising that charter schools engender political debate. But the charter school case is also an opportunity to study and address the practical and philosophical challenges that occur when the delivery of public services is shifted from centralized bureaucracies to private and non-profit organizations. There is a lot to be learned from the administration of charter schools, and that knowledge can improve administration in other service areas.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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