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Charter Board Partners

How Board Members Can (and Why They Should) Speak Up

February 07, 2018 | by David Connerty-Marin
Carrie Irvin, CBP's CEO, led the panel featuring five leaders with deep and broad experience as education advocates.

Many charter school board members are unsure how they can use their voices to advocate for charter—and all—public schools. Should they march with signs? Reach out to City Council members? As accountability stewards for their schools, charter school board members see the challenges that their students and their schools face, and they have a responsibility to speak up.
At the second annual DC Charter School Conference last week, CBP’s CEO and Co-Founder Carrie Irvin convened a panel of leaders with deep and broad experience in advocacy to talk about the political and policy issues that charter school board members should be familiar with, and recommend specific actions that board members can take. The panelists were: Catharine Bellinger, DC Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER); Sheila Bunn, Chief of Staff, Councilmember Vincent Gray; Mary Shaffner, Executive Director, DC International PCS; Abigail Smith, former Deputy Mayor for Education; and Naomi Shelton, Director of K-12 Advocacy, UNCF, and member, DC Public Charter School Board. 

Naomi Shelton

Their discussion of important issues affecting public charter schools in Washington, DC, included: 

  • Policies and practices related to student discipline
  • Controversies in the news right now related to graduation policies and practices  
  • Issues such as housing and transportation, that significantly affect students’ ability to succeed in school
  • School turnaround policies
  • Facilities issues, and in particular whether more city-owned buildings will be made available to schools
  • How DCPS and charter schools can collaborate to improve education for all students
  • Funding inequity, as well as the overall school budget

The panelists offered some specific actions that charter school board members can take to make their voices heard as advocates for better educational opportunities for all students, including:
Stay Informed and Educate Others

  1. Subscribe to the DFER DC listserv and get their weekly emails about ongoing policy and political issues that impact charter schools.
  2. Read UNCF’s reports on advocacy for K-12 parents.
  3. Give political and community updates at your board meetings.  For example, help your board and school craft their thinking on issues such as TPR and immigration that affect their students, and give board members tools to talk with their networks about these issues. 

Speak Up

  1. Help parents who cannot attend Council or other meetings and hearings to write down their stories so they can submit them as written testimony.
  2. Bring children to testify—schools can do this as part of a class project.
  3. Relationships are most important! Make face-to-face connections between the councilmember and the school; also your ANC commissioner and State Board of Education representative. Know the ecosystem.
  4. Invite elected officials and candidates to your school to meet parents, especially at drop-off and other times when more parents are likely to be there. Let them know your views.
  5. Encourage parents to call, email, or tweet at the City Council and its members.
  6. Create pressure and noise around compelling stories of need, and have a vision of the solution. Mobilize and advocate around what you want, not what you don’t want.


  1. Build the right board: have a well composed and diverse board—it will always come up with better solutions. 
  2. Survey parents about what they know and think so you will know how best to engage them.
  3. Go digital! Texting is one of the best ways to engage and reach parents, , and DC International PCS has done great work in this area. Reach out to Catharine at DFER for information about texting platforms you can use.
  4. Register parents to vote.
  5. Designate a point person on your board for family engagement. Keep lists and communicate regularly with parents. Keep them informed and engaged.
  6. Have a playbook for what you need your board to do when urgent action is needed so you don’t have to scramble in a crisis.
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