I am fortunate to have worked at two different charter schools in several different capacities. I am also the parent of children who attended a charter school where I worked as an assistant director. I was one of a group of people that helped start a second one - a dual language Montessori school. I currently work at the school as their school counselor. Starting that school and my involvement with it over 15 years has been a defining work in my life.
In North Carolina, where my charter school operates, charter schools are independent public schools. Even though North Carolina has had charter schools since 1997, many people are still confused about this. In North Carolina, charter schools must abide by many groups of regulations that govern traditional public schools. These include enrolling children without charging them any tuition or fees, abiding by the NC Open Meetings Law, fiscal compliance including yearly audits, attendance laws, federal special education laws, federal student privacy laws, teacher licensure, and state accountability (testing) standards. Charters have freedom that traditional public schools do not in how they spend state and local resources (federal money is still subject to restrictions on how it is used), the type of faculty members they employ (not everyone has to be licensed), and class size.
In 2001 the North Carolina State Board of Education approved our Charter plan. That plan became a contract between our Board of Directors and the State of North Carolina. The Department of Public Instruction oversees our school and out charter plan. In summary, our charter (contract) boils down to the operation of a K-8th grade school that uses the Montessori method of instruction (pedagogy) that provides dual-language education in English and Spanish. This contract, or charter, is the essence of our school.
Recently, we have had some "troubles" at school. Our current difficulties are not unusual in any school community, but has been a source of sadness for me, and for many other people who love our little community and who work hard to grow and develop it. One particular email that was sent to the entire school community encouraged other angry parents to "take back our school." That got me thinking about the "our" in that sentence. Who is the "our," anyway? I think it's important to look at each constituent group, starting with the Board of Directors.
Charter schools don't belong to the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors is the governing body and the ultimate authority within the school community, but they have restrictions. In North Carolina, the Board of Directors of a charter school must oversee policy and procedure that serve to implement the contract between the school and the state Department of Public Instruction. They must also oversee policies and procedures that meet federal, state and local laws and regulations. They answer to the Department of Public Instruction and through that agency, all other applicable agencies. They cannot decide to change the mission of the school, limit the types of students that can enroll beyond what is already in the charter, or anything else that fundamentally changes the school from the description that is outlined in the charter.
Charter schools don't belong to administration, staff and faculty. I think a lot of charter school employees will tell you that they give up some tangible benefits for intangible ones in a charter school. Often they are asked to do more with less, and may be asked to take on added responsibilities. They might tell you that the trade-off is taking part in a community where they feel a bit closer to the people that make decisions that affect their daily work lives and the success they have with children. Charter school employees are often the difference between an effective school and one that is struggling. But the school does not "belong" to them. They would be the first to tell you that they cannot function effectively without strong governance from the Board of Directors and a lot of help from parents. Employees who feel differently are not going to be helpful to the community as a whole.
Speaking of parents, doesn't the school belong to them? After all, they are the school's "customers." Charter schools have a lot of parent involvement - of time, talent and treasure. One of the indicators of the success of any school is its amount of parent involvement. So shouldn't we do what the majority of parents want? Well, I would agree that parents have a voice and that they should use it. Constructively. The Board of Directors must listen to parents and answer their concerns with as much speed and transparency as possible. To do otherwise is to condemn a school to limp along. The front door will be very active with people coming and then going. On the other hand, parents have to realize that their decision to enroll their child at a charter school is a choice. Part of the choice you made is to trust that a group of people can operate the organization effectively. It is not the job of the Board of Directors to change the school just because a majority of parents want it. Nor is it the job of the Board of Directors to allocate funds/hire and fire/create policy according to parent wishes. The job of the Board of Directors is to allocate funds and operate the school in the manner that they believe will best fulfill the requirements of the charter. If that is not happening, parents should complain within the school grievance structure. If that doesn't work, they should complain to the agency that oversees the Board of Directors.
What about the people that started the place? The founders? Shouldn't we defer to them? Well, no. Anyone who has studied organizational theory knows that schools go through stages. Often the people that were excellent at getting the place running are not so effective when things settle into a routine. Especially if the original operation of the charter isn't working and needs to be changed or renewed. New ideas and new people need to mix with the school history and "the way we've always done things" to create a vibrant school that is constantly moving forward. Making those necessary changes can be met with resistance from folks who have been around for awhile. So even though their input is valuable to keep from reinventing the wheel, the community should not be left solely in their hands.
So who is left? That would be the entire community. Charter schools also "belong" to the conditions of the contract between the school and the state that oversees its operation. The Board of Directors has the responsibility to make sure that the school abides by that contract. Faculty have the responsibility to implement the policies and procedures created by the Board and to contribute positively to their development. Parents who choose the school for their children have a responsibility to make sure their child is safe and thriving, and that the Board of Directors are doing what they can to support the implementation of the charter. Founders have the responsibility to be the keepers of experience and promoters of positive change. Although a charter school operates for the immediate benefit of the children enrolled each school year, it ultimately benefits the entire school community and indeed the larger local community. That benefit to the larger community is why most societies provide free appropriate public education to their children; something that has been a strong tradition in the United States since the country began. In essence, when everyone works together, the school becomes a strong independent entity that can accomplish marvelous things for the children it serves - because nothing else is more important than that.