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Charter Board Partners

Charter boards need to understand school discipline

July 09, 2016 | by Carrie C. Irvin

The charter sector, and its pundits and opinionators, are right to train our focus on the issue of out-of-school student suspension, which is fundamental to whether public charter schools are providing the best possible education to their students. But there is an important piece of this issue not being talked about enough: the role of charter school boards. The recent blog I co-wrote with Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, deputy director of the DC PCSB (the sole charter authorizer in Washington, D.C.), highlights how important it is that boards understand and actively engage in oversight of exclusionary discipline. After all, charter school boards are ultimately accountable for school operations and performance, including issues surrounding discipline.

Charter school board members are volunteers tasked with tremendous responsibility, and they need help, training, information, and support to build knowledge about this issue. It’s complicated and hard stuff; all of us involved in this discussion (who think about education professionally) are wrestling with it, so imagine how tough it is for volunteer board members. Yet that is where a huge share of accountability in the charter sector lies.

Boards need to understand their roles and responsibilities. They need a full picture of their student population and performance—not just academic achievement, but also whether or not their students are actually in school at a given time. And they need ready access to the data that will help them provide oversight at the school level, which is the backbone of charter accountability.

We at CBP believe that candid and proactive relationships between boards and authorizers make up a critical part of this work. We heartily applaud DC PCSB’s innovative use of “board-to-board meetings” to address matters like discipline. These meetings give leadership from both organizations the opportunity to discuss an array of issues, from low academic or financial performance to preparing for an upcoming review. Exclusionary discipline practices are absolutely on the list of critical issues to discuss.

It is important for the authorizer to share data about each school's record of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions; help school leadership understand how they compare to other schools; and hear, directly from the source, explanations of these rates. These discussions give DC PCSB Executive Director Scott Pearson, Naomi, and their team a chance to transparently discuss each school's discipline policies, their desired impact, and their actual outcomes. PCSB does not intend these to be “gotcha” conversations. Rather, they invest their time in sharing information and raising legitimate questions. While perspectives and experiences differ in other charter cities, our experience in D.C. has led us to strongly believe that our authorizer‘s intent is not to take away autonomy from schools; instead, it is to engage the board, which is charged with oversight of the school, in a frank conversation about the school's performance outcomes. 

At CBP, we believe that board-to-board meetings are only one element of building a constructive relationship between the authorizer and charter school boards, which is a necessary component of a strong charter sector. We seek other opportunities for interaction between charter board members and the authorizer. For example, we always invite Scott, Naomi, and members of their board to have lunch with each new group of prospective charter board members and current board members we train in the District. This gives us a chance to launch the relationship between authorizer and board members as a collegial, professional, supportive one characterized by mutual respect and understanding. They explain their function and talk about how they perceive the responsibilities of individual boards and board members. In turn, the board candidates ask questions both about their role and issues like academic performance, facilities, autonomy—and, yes, discipline. Taimarie Adams, a board member at Achievement Prep Academy Public Charter School who was recruited and trained by CBP, had this to say about her introductory session:

Meeting the authorizer during my initial board training was a great opportunity. It helped me see that we are all on the same team, with the same goal of running great schools. The authorizer is a great source of information for board members, and I came away from the training understanding that my board needs to work constructively and with transparency with the authorizer in order to protect our autonomy to run our school.

It is through these kinds of interactions, regular exposure, and substantive discussions that we can settle how charter schools can respond to the individual circumstances at each school, enriching the sector’s understanding and improving its practices. Charter school boards have a critical part to play that is far too rarely mentioned, and they need to be part of the discussion.

More resources:

Click here to read other entries in this ongoing discussion on the Fordham Institute's website.

Click here to read a blog by the DC authorizer, the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), on this topic.

Click here for DC PCSB's white paper on the topic.