Disconnect between Schools and Communities

EMOs, some nonprofit charter schools, and some elements of recovery districts are run by corporations housed outside the school’s geographic community and import many of their administrators and educators from elsewhere. In some situations it appears that EMOs may be artificially constructing ties to and justifications for charter schools within communities. As Miron and Nelson have documented,

In most of these cases, the strategic planning interests of the EMO was the impetus for starting the school. After selecting a promising community, the EMO organized informational meetings (several of which we attended), and then sought out a few local persons who could sign on as the founding group. The establishment of the school was driven by the EMO that completed the application materials and submitted them to a state university charter school office.38

In these cases, charter schools don’t arise from the needs or interests of a community, as was originally intended when charter schools were first proposed as a solution for local people to take more control over their schools. Instead, EMOs create an audience that is sympathetic to the image of charter schools that they envision and then use those local people to seek the charter the EMO desires. Miron and Nelson continue, “In short, it appears that in some instances, at least, the EMO tail is wagging the charter school dog. This sort of arrangement, then, might well compromise the public character of the schools by delegating an excessive amount of authority over school operations to private entities.”39

This practice does indeed call into question the truly public nature of these schools, including whether they serve the needs and interests of the community as defined by that community itself—the second element on my list. This problematic situation is compounded by the reduced public accountability of EMO charter schools, which compromises the third element of being open and responsive to public input. Whereas the running of most traditional public schools involves a process of open discussion whereby they are influenced by public opinion and elected officials on school boards,40 EMOs do not generally employ such democratic means. Instead, unelected and often nonlocal corporate leaders make educational decisions largely behind closed doors, thereby failing to model or embody communal partnership in education, or even publicness. In my own state, Ohio, legislation has been introduced to enable EMOs to make educational decisions regarding their practices, intentions, and finances private and withheld from the public.41 At the same time, Ohio has spent several years trying to settle a court case involving ten school boards who sued EMO White Hat Management, asking for a public accounting of the use of state funds that had been kept hidden.42 It would seem that keeping spending practices hidden violates the fiscal accountability that is required within a public setting and circumvents external auditing by a qualified independent accountant or even a public record to be assessed by general lay audiences.43

Despite the fact that charter schools are sometimes celebrated for their potential for strong local control (an element emphasized in the original vision of Albert Shanker), EMO leadership is often quite disconnected from the community. In their study of EMO governing boards, Wells and Scott found that “those who are handpicked to govern are not always those with the most vested interests—parents and educators. Instead, they are the ones with the most money, expertise, and connections"44 Even once handpicked, EMO members of the board of directors are kept closely in check by corporate overseers rather than by community members or local elections. In the case of White Hat Management schools, we see in a relatively recent charter school proposal that “the sole member of the Corporation shall have the power to appoint and remove Directors. Directors may be removed at any time, with or without cause, for any reason or no reason"45 The disconnect between the origination of the charter via the EMO and the population it intends to serve makes it difficult to develop civic allegiance and participation within a community, especially if the charter imports teachers and administrators from outside that community who lack knowledge of its struggles or deep and sustained commitment to its well-being. This disconnect is further complicated in Ohio, where charter schools are legally called “community schools"—a troubling misnomer that may mislead citizens in understanding how some of these schools operate.

Beyond those run by EMOs, traditional public schools and other types of charter schools are also facing a greater disconnect between the citizens in their communities and the schools. For example, as corporations, business leaders, and wealthy philanthropic entrepreneurs have begun to infiltrate schools and education policy sectors, whereas some citizens welcome their help as admired exemplars of free-market success, others feel that their voices have now have less influence or weight as those powerful forces take over.46 For example, journalist Dale Russakoff has chronicled the Zuckerberg-Booker-Christie reform of Newark’s schools, which he claims was originated by those three in the back of an SUV while driving the city streets late one night in 2009 and was welcomed with great excitement by many during the announcement on Oprah in 2010. “Despite Booker’s public promises of ‘bottom-up’ reform led by the people of Newark, he quietly hired a team of education consultants—none from Newark—soon after the Oprah announcement, to create a ‘fact base’ of the district’s needs and to lay the groundwork for changes he and Zuckerberg had agreed to over the summer"47 At an advisory school board meeting a short while later, board members shared their frustration at knowing nothing of the plans being devised elsewhere and imposed in Newark. At the same meeting, one parent, feeling disempowered and enraged, shouted, “We not having no wealthy white people coming in here destroying our kids!”48

Additionally, with greater federal influence shaping local school policy, curriculum, testing, and other educational practices, local voices may have considerably less sway. Indeed, we’ve seen many parents across the country this past year struggling with how to convey their disapproval of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), required as a condition for federal Race to the Top (RTTT) dollars at the state and district levels, and of related testing. Some, feeling as if they have had no other recourse to influence the practices in their local schools, have resorted to opting their children out of testing, in some cases as a way to shield their children from potential harms inflicted by testing and in others as a way to make a point about their dissatisfaction with the heavy emphasis on testing that has resulted from federal pressure and policy.49 Some of those parents feel that new curricula and testing have been imposed by leaders far away from their communities, with little knowledge of their local needs or little concern for the immediate impact of those changes on their specific children or teachers.

Finally, mayoral control, recovery school districts, Portfolio Management Model (PMM) districts, and conversion of traditionally elected school boards into appointed boards overseen by CEOs introduce another potentially serious disconnect between citizens and their schools. Mayoral control and appointed boards detract from local participation in school governance by decreasing a citizen’s ability to communicate with and directly influence a board member who was historically required to live within a district and be elected by its constituents. Instead, appointed board members now often come from outside the district. Not only does the public in these situations no longer have the ability to assess board members’ credentials, deem them credible through an election process, or generate ongoing influence beyond the election by attending the meetings,50 they also no longer have a system of checks and balances between community and board to ensure that their decisions reflect the will of the public.

In addition, while elected school boards are required to function openly and transparently, allowing citizens access to meetings and displaying meeting minutes publicly, appointed boards may not be held to the same standards, thereby foreclosing open exchanges of information and accountability to voters. Finally, appointed boards tend to reflect the ideology of the mayor or the small group that appoints them. While proponents of these forms of school governance would argue that a shared ideology is necessary to efficiently achieve change without being bogged down by ideological debates, this condition may also silence alternative perspectives, competing visions for change, legitimate concerns, or counterpoints. In this way, the appointed board may not only fail to adequately reflect the will of the public, it may overtly disregard their ideas. And, the appointed board may stamp out the very forms of deliberation that are necessary for crafting public goods.

Recovery school districts, in particular, have faced substantial opposition from multiple publics across time. During initial formation, some citizens expressed concerns about the loss of local control (particularly via their elected school board) and deep apprehensions about removing or overriding clauses regarding local control in their state constitutions. In the case of Michigan, voters used those concerns to limit the reach of the recovery school district only to Detroit, and legislators have maintained that stance despite repeated requests from education reformers to expand the district. Since its establishment in 2012, the recovery district’s partner, Eastern Michigan University, has experienced protests from those unhappy with the partnership.51 Most recently, in early 2015, Michigan’s governor convened the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren to determine the best course of action for the schools. The panel called for a return to the Detroit Public School model and the reinstatement of an elected school board.52 Later in the year, teachers staged sickouts and used social media to reveal the substandard school conditions that had worsened dramatically in recent years under recovery leadership. Tennessee’s Achievement School District, another recovery district, faced major community opposition, as it attempted to turn over some of its schools to nationally known charter operators after the district was established. Indeed, citizen and policymaker resistance in Tennessee has been perpetual since the program was conceived, including twenty-two bills that have been introduced into the Tennessee legislature to end or curb the district.53

Additionally, some recovery districts have insulated themselves from the effects of opposition by keeping the charter school cycle internal. In other words, they authorize their own charters, run their own schools, and then assess their own success. This worrisome closed loop prevents necessary checks and balances as well as opportunities for external analysis and feedback. Relatedly, many charter schools across the country have been plagued by financial mismanagement and scandal. We must be careful that giving these schools greater freedom does not result in relinquishing the public oversight or active public participation that enables citizens or elected officials to speak up and take action when they detect problems.

Other significant opposition has arisen because of a disconnect between communities and the recovery district serving them. In New Orleans and Detroit, both cities with significant populations of poor, black residents, some of those residents have voiced frustrations that they feel their schools have been taken away from them by wealthy, white outsiders. And in New Orleans, students have protested their recovery district because of its extreme disciplinary policies and high rates of expulsion, which, as speculated by one New Orleans teacher, is perhaps because these outsiders are out of touch with the typical ways of life in the city, home of raucous secondline parades.54 Also, some New Orleans recovery district schools have let go of or downplayed community elements that were historically meaningful, such as large homecoming celebrations, leaving some residents feeling less connected to or proud of their schools.55 The situation in New Orleans is compounded by nonprofit charter schools, like the KIPP schools, that have established several schools in the area but staff them largely with teachers recruited from elsewhere, a large portion of whom are Teach for America volunteers from wealthier communities elsewhere in the country.56

Recovery school district supporters point out that they believe power remains democratic, but that it has simply been shifted from one small elected board to a larger hybrid board as well as to individual small boards at each of the charter schools they authorize.57 Perhaps, though, it might behoove them to consider whether citizens retain sufficient avenues for determining the makeup of, contacting, or influencing those boards to express their ideas or engage in deliberation about school decisions, a key responsibility of public schools I described earlier. On other occasions, their proponents are sometimes quick to write off opposition with claims such as “One can’t help but notice that opposition to such endeavors has mostly been driven not by voices demanding other kinds of rigorous change, but by those defending the status quo: local control, local prerogatives, untouchable teacher contracts, and the preservation of adult jobs"58 But ongoing public outcry suggests a dissatisfaction that should not be overlooked. And it may suggest that these public schools are not functionally public insofar as they are not holding, responding to, and acting on public deliberation about their own needs, concerns, and interests.

Relatedly, while PMM districts face similar criticisms—that they are shifting power away from local governments—local voices can and do make a difference in these districts. A 2010 study found that

local civic capacity matters: the existence of a broad constituency animated

by a shared vision of public education is important to the sustainability of the portfolio model when district and city leadership changes ... Over time key decisions appear to be drifting back into the localized arena. Local civic capacity, which makes it possible for communities to keep the portfolio process tethered to local values and responsive to democratic signals, may play a role in this.59

Additionally, even as local government may fall victim to the pressures of centralization, privatization, and school choice, a new form of localism rooted in civil society may be forming and may prove beneficial.60 Continued citizen participation, and outcry when warranted, may help to balance the move away from local control inherent in PMM districts and the larger national organizations and practices supporting them. Input regarding local values and discussion of a shared vision of education among publics in the civil realm may help to keep the schools functionally public and serving the role of a public good.

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