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Charter Board Partners

A Welcome Spotlight on DC’s Charter School Board Members

September 29, 2016 | by Carrie C. Irvin
We at CBP are thrilled about the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Bellwether Education's report today, "Charter School Boards in the Nation's Capital."  We have been working with charter school boards for over six years, and applaud Fordham and Bellwether for shining a light on charter school board members and the important role of boards in overseeing a high-quality charter school sector.  In Washington, DC's robust charter sector, boards--not school leaders, not CMOs--actually hold the charter, and are responsible for the quality of their schools and the academic outcomes for their students.  For public charter schools,  leadership means board as well as school leadership, a notion which is still widely overlooked.  We agree with the report's authors that boards have received much less attention than is due, and we welcome this contribution to our level of knowledge about DC's charter school board members.
The report provides a wealth of data about who serves on charter school boards and what skills, approaches, beliefs, and level of understanding they bring to this work.  We look forward to sharing our thoughts about the connections, patterns, and findings in the report in the coming weeks.  Today, we will comment on the report's excellent recommendations:  Recruit board members with relevant experience and the motivation to govern well, invest in strong governance, and train board members to engage in strategic oversight.
Recruiting.  We are proud of our work recruiting and training charter school board members in DC (and currently in three other states).  We focus on finding individuals with the skills, experience, and perspective that charter schools need, and we love channeling talent into education reform by matching these talented individuals to boards that need them. We love the report's conclusion that serving on the board of a public charter school is a fantastic way for citizens to get involved in their communities, thereby building civic engagement strengthening the social fabric of our communities. A major focus of our recruiting work is on increasing the diversity of charter school boards.  In DC, and nationally, charter school boards are less racially diverse than the student population their schools serve.  We see racially diverse boards as critically important for a number of reasons, including:
  • Boards should represent and reflect the students they serve
  • Boards provide a superb opportunity for citizens with varying perspectives, backgrounds, life experiences, and lenses to work together around a common mission, thus ensuring that board decisions are informed by these different perspectives and that community members get to know people from different networks and sectors
  • Boards are a vehicle for authentic community engagement; diverse, actively engaged governing boards can help reduce the extent to which educational reform is being done "to" communities
  • Research continues to show that diverse boards make better decisions that result in stronger academic outcomes, more diverse school leadership and staff, and more sustainable organizations
Investment in capacity.  Three cheers for the report's call for further investment in boards' capacity to evaluate school leaders. This is one of every board's most important responsibilities, and the most powerful lever boards have to improve student outcomes.  We would broaden this recommendation and note that most boards need greater capacity not only in this area, but in other key areas of governance as well.  Authorizers, charter support organizations, funders, and charter organizations themselves all need to invest in building the capacity of boards to fully understand their roles and responsibilities and carry out those responsibilities faithfully and consistently.
Training.  Without question, charter school board members need high quality training and access to useful and action-oriented resources.  We invite charter school board members in DC to participate in our Governance Academy, and to be on the lookout for additional trainings we'll offer in the coming year that will focus on the most pressing challenges facing charter schools.  We are excited about our partnership with the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), with whom we are exploring the best ways to encourage boards to participate in the kinds of training that lead to improved results for students. As the report notes, authorizers have a key role to play in strong governance; here in DC, we are extremely fortunate to have the country's best authorizer, and we are delighted to be working with PCSB to focus on strengthening governance.
As the authors say, there is much work still to be done, and we look forward to working with DC PCSB, FOCUS, Fordham, Bellwether, and other partners to dive more deeply into the correlation between strong governance and improved outcomes for students.  We also look forward to further exploring the importance of diverse boards, and engaging with networks and communities of color to ensure that DC charter school boards become significantly more diverse.  In addition, we are thinking a lot about inclusion; diversity for diversity's sake is actually not success.  Boards must intentionally build a strong culture of inclusion that values all viewpoints and provides opportunities for everyone at the table to be heard, and for different perspectives to be genuinely valued. 
We couldn't agree more strongly with the recommendations in this report, and our governance hearts are leaping today to see this long-overdue look at who serves on the charter school boards of Washington DC--in whose hands our students' education ultimately lies.
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