David Cook, the Kentucky State Department of Education’s advisor for the “Race to the Top” program, suggested Tuesday that Kentucky probably will have to make changes in school governance structures that at least resemble the charter school concept in order to get “Race to the Top” funds. Currently, Kentucky’s school laws do not allow for the creation of charter schools. Cook suggested, however, that making changes to how school-based decision-making councils operate could give considerable freedom to the school councils of failing schools and put Kentucky in a better position to receive funding.
North Carolina’s interest in competing for funds through the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” contest has again brought the state’s charter school cap to the forefront of education policy discussion. In order to compete for funds, the contest requires states to submit plans for overhauling their education systems with specific components, one of which is easing restrictions on charter schools. North Carolina’s current charter school policy caps the number of charter schools that can be authorized at 100, and provides that no more than five charter schools may be authorized within a school district per year. Shortly after the passage of charter school legislation in 1996, charter school advocates started pushing the General Assembly to raise or remove the cap, arguing that it limits opportunities for the success of the state’s charter school movement. All attempts have thus far been unsuccessful.
The market-based and outcomes-based accountability systems that underlie the charter school concept are much different than the bureaucratic accountability systems that we have become accustomed to. While the specifics of charter school legislation vary considerably from state to state, the basic charter school concept is that these public/private hybrids of sorts are relieved of much of the bureaucratic oversight that traditional public schools are subject to, in exchange for agreeing to high standards of academic achievement. One area of freedom that many charter schools enjoy is budget autonomy; meaning most if not all school spending decisions are made at the school level, usually by boards of directors and school administrators. With that freedom, a number charter schools have chosen to pay their school leaders salaries that are significantly higher than the salaries of traditional public school principals. The Times Picayune reported on Sunday May 17, 2009 of some pretty remarkable salaries for charter school principals in New Orleans. At the top of that list were the head of Lusher Charter School who earns $203, 556 annually, and the principal of Lafayette Charter School who earns $186,000 per year.
It should be expected that many questions will be asked and much will be said about these salaries in the wake of this media attention. But issue I would like to focus on is this: if a charter school’s board of directors decides that the best way to meet the achievement goals of set forth in its charter is to pay its principal what the general public would consider to be an extraordinary amount of money, is that decision not that board’s statutory right? If that decision does not produce the results the desired results (at least theoretically) that school leader will be out of a job. And if that school does not reach the standards set forth in its charter, (again, theoretically) that school will be closed either because a state board of education has closed it or because parents have sent their children elsewhere. So the question that I raise is a simple one and is farther reaching than any question of an individual administrator’s salary in New Orleans. If by design charter schools are created as mostly autonomous entities with their boards of directors vested with the power to make autonomous school spending decisions, is the public entitled to any direct say in those decisions? As always, I’d love to hear from you!