Corporate and financial executives hold a large share of seats on the boards of Massachusetts charter schools, giving them more influence than parents, who are comparatively underrepresented, according to a new study.
The report out of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University found that 31 percent of board members are affiliated with the financial and corporate sectors and 14 percent are parents.
"Parents are not being given the opportunity for a voice in the management of their schools," said Leigh Dingerson, a consultant with the Annenberg Institute and the lead author of the report.
With traditional public schools, she noted, parents can vote for school committee members or the mayors who appoint them.
The report — titled “Whose Schools?” — found that 60 percent of charter schools had no parents on their boards. Only five charters had students on their boards. Since most schools seem to highlight which board members are parents, researchers assumed that any board members not listed as parents were not parents at the school. Massachusetts charter operators dismissed the report, saying their schools are well run and among the best performing in the country.
Charter school boards "consist of hundreds of volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds who devote countless hours to supporting these high quality educational opportunities for tens of thousands of children across the state," said the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, in a statement.
The report comes amid a tense public debate over whether to allow more charter schools in Massachusetts. A proposed ballot measure would allow for the creation or expansion of 12 such schools per year, with a preference for proposals in the lowest-performing districts.
The measure, if approved by voters in November, would allow for significant additions to the state's existing stock of 81 charter schools.
Dingerson, the author of the report, has written critically of charter schools and is a paid consultant with a left-leaning advocacy group, The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. This coalition includes the Annenberg Institute and two major teachers unions that have critiqued charters, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
Annenberg researchers reviewed the websites of 81 charter schools and one school transitioning to a charter, collecting trustees' names and professional affiliations when available. They called or e-mailed schools without information on their websites and consulted other online resources to fill in the gaps.
Charters "are touted as being the greatest thing since sliced bread for urban students and they don't have parents represented," said Lisa Guisbond, executive director of the advocacy group Citizens for Public Schools. "It's just outrageous." She argued that charters with a stronger parent presence on the board might not engage in "harsh discipline" of students.
Some charter schools suspend as many as 40 percent of their students at least one day per year. Others have far lower suspension rates. And charter operators say suspensions, particularly at the beginning of the school year, are important tools for getting parents involved and building the safe, strong cultures those parents crave.
Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the charter school association, added that some schools are opposed to seating parents on their boards because they may have conflicts of interest if their own children attend the schools.
He added that charters, which are independent and cannot rely on a central school district office for business functions, benefit from the expertise of corporate and financial professionals on their boards.
Those members also play an important role in raising money for the schools.
Dingerson acknowledged the importance of business-savvy board members but said charters can still put a larger number of parents on the panels. Annenberg recommends that at least 50 percent of charter board members be parents or, in the case of a high school, parents and students.
The institute also suggests in the report that any non-parent and non-student members of boards be required to live in the school districts in which the schools operate. Researchers were only able to determine the residency of one-third of charter board members. But Annenberg's limited data suggest many live outside the districts surrounding the charters.