You want local, elected school boards? Charter-based voting would do it

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It’s a common gripe among critics of New Orleans school reform: Charter school governance is too clubby.

Self-selected and autonomous boards can’t be voted out by constituents, which some say limits community control of a charter school. And some who’ve called for a return of the city’s schools to elected governance have said that they want charters to be more accountable to the public they serve.

The implicit assumption has been that accountability hinges on the kind of citywide elections used to select members of the Orleans Parish School Board.

But what if voter control was achieved in another way? What if the city’s charter school boards were elected — not through a city-wide ballot, but by the parents and teachers a charter board serves?

Not only would that bring local control right down to the level of individual schools and charter management groups, proponents note, it would expand the roster of elected officials in charge of Orleans schools from the current seven members of the Orleans Parish School Board to the scores of men and women who serve on charter boards.

At least two states currently require that their charter school boards be elected by a school’s families and staff. Parents and educators elect charter board members in Minnesota, home of the nation’s first charter schools. Boards must be comprised of at least one parent, one of the school’s teachers, and at least one person not affiliated with the school. A charter board may be self-selected initially, but within three years all seats must be filled by election. Boards can set their own term limits.

In South Carolina, boards can be a hybrid of elected and selected members. At least half of a charter board’s members must be elected by a majority of the school’s families and staff. The other half must have a background in education or business, and these members may be appointed or selected by the incumbent board members. South Carolina state law sets two-year term limits.

Minnesota Association of Charter Schools associate director Dan DeBruyn said that Minnesota’s law, while amended several times over the years, has always required that charter boards be elected.

“I think in general, people would agree with having an elected board, just so that they have some say in the way that the institution was run. For Minnesota, I think it’s worked very well,” DeBruyn said.

A call for elected charter school boards is one among many suggestions in recent years for  reworking school governance in New Orleans. But the proposal, by former Orleans Parish School Board president Torin Sanders, did not specify how that goal was to be implemented. Sanders told The Lens that he didn’t think to recommend site-based elections, but he said he approves of the concept.

“Definitely, that kind of structure would go a long way into creating … a real sense of accountability for boards,” Sanders said.

Duplicating Minnesota’s policy in Louisiana, through law or in practice, would need buy-in from charter boards themselves. And some feel that what charters are doing now works just fine.

“I’m less inclined to say the answer is to move to elected boards,” Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools executive director Caroline Roemer Shirley said. “I think that brings politics to the table, and I’m not sure politics serves students very well all the time.”

Instead, boards should build parent and educator involvement into their current structure, she said.

A few boards make room for community involvement, though they aren’t elected. The four-school New Beginnings Network, for example, amended its bylaws in December to require that the board seat at least two parents of children who attend the group’s schools.

And the six-school Algiers Charter School Association selected board member Nicole Sheppard after she was recommended by a group of ACSA teachers, board member D’Juan Hernandez said.

Hernandez said he could see merits in both processes. He stressed that more charter leaders need to collectively craft ideas for future governance models, both for their schools and for what the parish school board should look like: “I believe parents and staff should have some say in [picking] the people who are representing their interest,” he said.

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