For three years I have worked as a business consultant to charter and voucher schools, focusing on facilities, funding and strategic planning. I want to share what I have observed as a guide to what to do -- and not do -- to manage charter and voucher schools.
Let's define charter and voucher schools first. A charter school is a public school. Basically, a group of parents petition a school board to create a school to meet special needs. For example, parents may want a school that treats children with autism. The school board grants a permit to create such a school, which contracts, or "charters" to provide special services. With this permit comes state aid for the school.
In Wisconsin, a voucher or choice school exists only in Milwaukee. It also qualifies for state aid but unlike the charter school, a voucher or choice school can be a private or parochial school.
In effect, these schools are small, independent businesses -- and they run the risks of business start-ups. To manage these risks, they need ongoing help with business issues like funding, facilities and strategic planning, since the start-up staff are usually enthusiastic teachers with little or no business knowledge. This can put the schools, students and the reputations of healthy charters and vouchers at risk.
And there are horror stories. In one case, a school opened with no desks, no textbooks and no money to meet its first teacher payroll. School operators were running around like the proverbial "chickens with their heads cut off." This is educational malpractice. It should not occur.
In another case, a school used money that should have covered payroll taxes to expand school real estate. This is playing with dynamite. It can result in huge fines for anybody officially connected with such a school, and there was a frantic search for a cash fix before the board, teachers or vendors discovered the school could not pay its taxes.
Critics demand more stringent academic performance from charter and voucher schools. They also need to demand equally stringent business accountability. Users of public funds should never fear open books.
But a lack of professional standards in some charter and voucher schools puts them at risk. Nobody should be allowed to operate a charter or voucher school without having at least a college degree. Education is a profession, not a get-rich scheme for opportunists. I observed one operator who lacked both a college education and business sense. The school was almost forced to shut down because it lacked liability insurance.
I belong to the Wisconsin Charter School Association, which needs to create a code of ethics to prevent gross educational malpractice. Otherwise, all of us will get tarred and feathered because of the charlatans, hustlers and snake-oil salesmen using charter and voucher schools to make a fast buck. Healthy charter and voucher schools do not deserve bad reputations because some people misuse tuition dollars.
Parents are desperate to put their children where they are physically safe. There is a scholarly debate about whether the academic outcomes of charter and voucher schools match those of mainline public schools -- but inner city parents want simple safety, not academics, first.
Through my business consulting to charter and choice schools during the past three years, I have also discovered that many of our best teachers find their way to these schools. They want to do a better job. In mainline schools, the lack of discipline, large class sizes and dismal attendance ties their professional hands. For them, education is not about money and benefits (although these help). It is about cultures that value learning.
Charter and voucher schools are not going away. In fact, the Legislature may expand charter schools by letting county boards authorize them. When boards weigh charter applications, I hope they ask hard questions about the credentials, business structures and business practices of petitioners.
In effect, charter and voucher schools are small businesses. They need to operate like them. They need to join small business associations that can provide another "set of eyes" to support these schools, and minimize risks now becoming apparent in some schools.