ViewPoint: Business-heavy charter school boards should be copied, not maligned

This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Business Journal

As the debate on expanding public charter schools heats up, the role of local business leaders has taken a prominent place in the conversation. While the headlines are currently trading shots about executives supporting the upcoming ballot initiative to lift the cap on charter schools, the longer-term and more substantive debate involves business leaders taking a public service role in charter school governance.

Every single charter authorized by the board of Elementary and Secondary Education is granted to a nonprofit entity, as mandated by law, and more than 90 percent of charter schools are also run by nonprofit organizations. Local business leaders bring experience to local public charter-school governance that is badly needed. The composition of these boards has come under scrutiny, in a report from Brown University and again in the recent debate between Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson and former state Rep. Marty Walz.

The position of opponents to Question 2 is that the experienced business leaders’ prominent role in governance is a problem. Yet that stance, explicitly in this case and implicitly in others, is a defense of the management and governance of the traditional bureaucracy in public schools.

Jackson and Walz are both Democrats, and a core tenet of our party is a belief that government can run effective organizations that make real positive difference in people’s lives — especially those that need it most. That belief must be paired with a responsibility to ensure that those organizations are actually fulfilling that mission. Boston Public Schools, which spends more per pupil than any other big-city school system in the country, according to Census Bureau data, has proven otherwise for far too long.

The range of management problems at Boston Public Schools is well-documented — from missing performance reviews and lead in the drinking water to a dysfunctional vocational technical high school that is failing students. To attack the governance structure of public charter schools as containing too much business acumen reads almost like a headline from The Onion.

Public goods like K-12 education are clearly not identical to businesses, in both values and in practice. Large urban public school systems in particular are incredibly challenging to run, and clearly more complex to evaluate than any entity where success can be measured by just the bottom line.

But Democrats especially must hold our public investments to high standards in the areas in which all organizations must excel, from potable water to performance reviews. Many high-performing charter schools are doing that and more, and their board leadership should be copied instead of maligned.

Liam Kerr is state director of Democrats for Education Reform.