Similar to traditional public schools, public charter schools are regulated by the Rhode Island Department of Education and are accessible to all Rhode Island students, albeit on a lottery (i.e. random) basis. However, unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are privately-run by non-profit organizations. Yet, they derive their primary funding – per pupil tuition—from municipal tax coffers. Owing to the fact that the lion’s share of funding for charter schools is provided by local taxpayers, I introduced legislation (2018-S 2186) that would provide community representation on the board of directors (governance board) of a given charter school when a community’s population comprises 5 percent or greater of a charter school’s population. Specifically, my legislation would authorize school committees to appoint one of its members or designee to the board of directors of a local charter school to give a voice to those who foot the largest part of the bill for charter school education (Note: some charters schools such as mayoral academies do this already).
This “taxation with representation” approach to public charter school governance was recently opposed by vocal charter school proponents, with one arguing that charter schools have enough oversight as they must abide by such laws as the Open Meetings Act or the Access to Public Records Act, or that they face the scrutiny of the R.I. Department of Education every three to five years in order to renew their charters.
On the surface this may sound good, but it is a far cry from meaningful oversight by a governing body. It’s absurd to think that the public’s ability to attend a board meeting or to request a budget document is as good as actually being a member of the board itself. Even those who have the time and resources to stay on top of the goings-on at a charter school board would still not be permitted to participate in the decision and its policy-making process.
Similarly, the notion that RIDE’s periodic check-ins and charter review every 3 to 5 years provides the same level of oversight as a board of directors is not credible oversight either given its infrequency and lack of continuity. Even with the best of intentions, RIDE has a full plate regulating — not governing — every school district and charter school (more than 300 schools) in the state of Rhode Island with an already stretched staff. Proper oversight requires monthly oversight meetings with staff presentations, inquiry, findings, analysis and decision-making, etc. A case in point: the Beacon Charter High School for the Arts in Woonsocket violated state policy regarding the admission lottery rule by screening out students who hadn’t passed 8th grade math and English. Beacon school’s violation of charter lottery rules was eventually caught by RIDE, but only at the time of the charter’s renewal. Had there been a more independent member of the Beacon board of directors, this violation of the rules could have been prevented or have been detected far sooner than three to five years later!
Another vocal proponent of charter schools asserted that her charter school does include members of the community on the school's board (of trustees). While the State of Rhode Island requires that public schools be governed by elected officials, no such requirement is currently in place to provide this kind of accountability for the use of public dollars in charter schools. Instead, charter schools are governed by a self-selected board of directors (or trustees). Thus, literally millions of local public dollars are expended by a private agency (charter school) with little to no accountability to the people who fund the charter schools themselves through their tax dollars. Further, it is difficult to ensure complete transparency and accountability when the board members who are responsible for academic and financial policy-making at a charter school are chosen by their OWN organization.
In a recent 2016 report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University which examined charter school governance in neighboring Massachusetts, the report concluded that for effective oversight “the public is more strongly served by charter schools that remain truly accountable to the taxpayers, parents, students, and educators closest to them and most directly impacted by them.” I believe that my legislation would help RI move positively in the direction of this stated goal.
The author, James C. Sheehan is a state senator representing District 36. He resides in North Kingstown.