Denis Smith is a veteran educator who ended his career working for the Ohio State Education Department, overseeing charter schools. This is the first of a series of five articles. In it he considers the question of charter school governance.

Who runs the school? Who appoints the board? Who is responsible? Is it public or private? Deregulation and privatization go hand in hand.


Denis Smith is a retired school administrator who worked both as a sponsor representative for charter schools as well as a consultant in the state charter school office. In this five-part series, he offers his perspective about charter school governance and how this mechanism designed to provide transparency and accountability for public entities is sorely lacking and may in fact be the “fatal design flaw” of these schools.

Part One

A few months before I ended my career as a consultant for the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office, a sponsor representative approached me and asked why I was so critical of charter schools, and particularly the ones his organization had helped to open.

“It’s all about governance,” I replied. “In my community, I can drive around the neighborhood and see the campaign lawn signs of the candidates and what they propose to offer for the office they seek. I can see names and contact information for school board candidates and observe them at community forums. But I know nothing about the people on the boards of the schools you sponsor. Who are they, why were they chosen, whom do they represent, and how does a parent contact them when they have a grievance with the school and its administration?”

My response to the charter school industry rep’s question was based on musings at the end of a forty-five-year professional career, informed by service as a school administrator in two states at the district, regional and state levels, by experience in a for-profit environment in marketing communications, and as the director of a non-profit national professional society. In every aspect of that long and rewarding career in the public, for-profit and nonprofit sectors, I worked with boards that were elected by the voters in a school district, elected by members of the professional society, or through processes detailed in the organization’s by-laws. In the case of charter schools, however, the governing board and how it was selected did not fit into any of these processes. Therein lies the problem.

For me, the murkiness of how boards are populated and by whom remains the fundamental design issue with charter schools, and the problem with these proliferating entities begins – and ends – with governance. Or the lack of it.

A classic study conducted more than 20 years ago indicated there were more than 4.5 million boards in the United States that provided some measure of governance and oversight for all kinds of organizations, including for-profit, nonprofit, and governmental institutions. One can only imagine the plethora of various statutes, by-laws and corporate specifications that propose to direct the formation of all of these governing boards.

With full knowledge of the variety of governance models in all of these organizations, one should be able to see clear evidence of a visible board in action, responsive to its constituents. But when the subject is charter schools, we see in all-too-many cases an invisible board that has an ill-defined constituency which is determined by who selected the members.

And there is the fatal flaw in charter school genetic code. Based upon the method which formed the governing board, whom does the board represent? Is it the school developer, or the management company that operates the board? Since the board and its members would be expected to have a natural affinity for the individual or company that appointed them, the students and parents are in most cases not going to be the natural constituents to be represented at the table due to the manner of selection, not election.

Tomorrow, we will examine the clearest example of why governance is an issue with so many charter schools, evidence of the “ill-defined constituency” and a “natural affinity” for who appoints the board members.