Q: Four teachers I respect started a charter school that's now struggling. I'm an accountant, and they've asked me to join their board. I love their mission -- to put low-income kids on a college track -- but wonder how I can help. What are the responsibilities of a school board?
A: School boards have key responsibilities, including hiring and managing the school leaders, ensuring financial best practices, promoting the mission and overseeing student progress. Board members are central to a charter's success.
Charters operate independently from public schools, are free from most government regulations and often form teacher-union contracts. They are approved by an outside authority that differs from state to state.
The authorizer holds schools accountable for student performance and financial viability, and can close schools if they don't produce satisfactory results. Some charters are run by CMOs: for-profit or nonprofit "charter management organizations" that manage several schools.
During the 2013-2014 school year, there were 6,440 charter schools in the U.S. serving 2.7 million students. During that time frame, 640 new schools opened and roughly 200 existing charters were closed. This 3-to-1 ratio has held steady for five years, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Low enrollment, financial problems and poor academic performance are the most common reasons charters get shut down.
In the early days of charters, board selection was often an afterthought. The thinking was, "Find a good principal and teachers, and we're good to go."
As the movement matured, charter leaders began to focus on school governance to avoid pitfalls such as schools abruptly closing due to financial instability, poor test scores and crony hiring.
The late Mary Mitchell, co-founder of Girls Prep in New York (now part of Public Prep Network), said of her experience, "You can't have a successful charter without a team of energetic, informed and honest-broker board members. The board chooses the principal, helps build staff capacity, sets standards for professional development, oversees budgets and raises money to supplement public funds. It 'owns' student performance. Schools don't fail; boards fail their schools. When that happens, we fail the kids."
To promote good governance, some authorizers require or strongly encourage charters to bring on objective board members with governing experience and required skill sets.
Do your due diligence before signing on. Read June Kronholz's piece, "Boot Camps for Charter Boards," in the summer 2015 edition of Education Next (educationnext.org). She describes how nonprofit Charter Board Partners recruits, trains and places professionals willing to serve on charter school boards.
Read The Top 10 Mistakes of Charter School Boards at boardontrack.com, a website that provides guidance for board members.
Go on YouTube and watch Carrie Irvin's TEDx Talk, "The Key to Great Schools is Great Boards."
Delve into data on charter school performance at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (publiccharters.org).
Know where you stand on controversial issues. For example, should your school "back fill" seats -- admit new students whenever current ones leave? How equitable is your application process?
Visit charter schools in your community, including the one whose board you may join. May 3-9 is National Charter Schools Week, and many schools plan special events for parents and visitors during this time.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)