Using Charter School Boards as an Accountability Bridge Between Schools and the Public

When we talk about charter schools and governance and we tend to think of charter policy itself as a governance innovation. Anyone following education policy is aware of the debate over the portfolio model of schools, the issue of charter management organizations, and the diversity of charter school laws and authorizers. And yes, charter policy is itself a governance innovation. However, a charter school policy is only as good as the quality of schools enabled by it, and can only be successful if the public accepts charter schools as a legitimate provider of public education. Thus, if charter policies are to be effective at scale we must:

  1. Understand what makes individual charter schools successful; and
  2. Develop ways to ensure public acceptance of charter schools and policies.

In a new paper in Education and Urban Society, Doug Ihrke and I take up the second point by explaining how charter school board members approach the issue of accountability, and then by using their answers to inform suggestions on how charter boards can serve as an accountability bridge between their schools and the public at-large. First, some background. My interest in public sector accountability stems, in part, from frustrations with some of the accountability work in the public administration and education policy literatures. There is so much theorizing, but surprisingly little actionable information regarding accountability. I see value in public administration theory, I enjoy reading it, but I also want to know how it matters. With that in mind Doug and I created a radical new methodology that involves asking those charged with holding public organizations accountable how they define accountability. Simple? Yes…but also very fruitful.

In this specific study we asked 215 charter school board members in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin how they defined accountability in their charter school. We then coded their open-ended answers using the categories below:

  1. Test scores. Responses coded “test scores” reference standardized test scores or high-stakes testing. An example answer in our data is “Standardized testing.”
  2. Responses coded “staff” reference teachers or the school principal. An example answer in our data is “Teachers need to meet instructional targets. Failing to do so may result in dismissal.”
  3. Responses coded “board” explicitly reference the board itself. An example answer in our data is “Our success and failures are directly related to the board being within our roles as governing members.”
  4. Responses coded “authorizer” reference either the charter contract or the authorizer. An example answer in our data is “Our expectations are stated clearly in the Charter Contract.

As you can see in the figure below, respondents gave diverse answers, with test scores and staff being the most prominent.

chart

However, as we state in the paper, “[n]ot one survey respondent mentioned the taxpayer, citizens, or any external constituency; indeed, board members either looked downward at student and staff performance (test scores and staff accountability), inward at the board itself, or upward at their authorizer.” This poses a legitimacy challenge and speaks, we argue, to the heart of criticism questioning the very publicness of charter schools. Simply, charter schools are a step removed from the direct public accountability traditionally associated with public education. Now, certainly the wisdom of the traditional school board governance model and the effectiveness of democratic accountability in education can be debated, but that does not change the reality of public expectations for accountability. As we conclude: “[T]he absence of outward looking accountability definitions on charter boards is further evidence of the legitimacy challenge facing the charter model of school governance.”

So what can be done? We offer five basic suggestions that can empower charter school board to serve as the accountability bridge between their schools and the public.

  1. Elected Charter School Board Members: Opening up a set number of seats on charter school boards for direct election can bring increased balance to, and representation on, charter school boards. While elections could lead to board members hostile to charter school policy, the potential for any citizen in a school’s catchment area to serve on charter boards brings a level of direct electoral accountability that is currently lacking.
  2. Board Member Term Limits: Though hardly an innovative idea, staggered term limits can ensure an evolving group dynamic.
  3. Board Member Listening Sessions: Charter boards have nothing akin to a standard agenda item for public input. Allowing open comment and questioning at one or more points throughout the year would allow the public to voice their concerns directly to a school’s governing body.
  4. Mandated Board Member Training: Another obvious suggestion, but one that would aid members nonetheless.
  5. The Creation and Dissemination of a Board Accountability Plan: What does accountability mean to board members and how do they plan to actualize the concept? Creating a plan forces board members to be aligned with one another, and also creates a written contract between the board and the public.

There is of course a lot more detail in the paper so please feel free to contact me at fordm@uwosh.edu if you would like a full copy. My hope is that this project, which is ongoing, will continue to yield actionable insights into how governance impacts both the performance and legitimacy of public and nonprofit organizations.

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