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Charter Board Partners

Independent, non-elected boards make a difference

August 27, 2018 | by Carrie C. Irvin

Last week, David Osborne and Emily Langhorne of the Reinventing America's Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute released a report indicating that independent public charter schools do better than district-run schools that have more autonomy than most district schools.  

The challenges to district schools that they identify are largely structural. Independent charter schools have more actual autonomy than the hybrid district schools; independent charter schools are (in theory) held accountable for student performance in a tighter way and with more consequences for low performance. They are also less subject to changes in political context; district-provided autonomy is more fragile and less sustainable.  

I’d add one more structural reason why independent charters do better than district-run autonomous schools: they have independent, non-elected boards. 

When those boards are well composed and board members understand their roles and responsibilities, they add real accountability, deep expertise and guidance, strategic insight, and a push for results. We in the charter sector talk a lot about the positive role of charter school authorizers in holding schools accountable—which is very true. But when an underperforming school gets in trouble with an authorizer, it’s arguably too late. Effective boards hold their schools accountable in real time, and can identify problems and change course quickly. They can take quick action that can help improve student outcomes, remove barriers to improvement, and bolster school culture.

Osborne and Langhorne offer important recommendations to school districts looking to improve student achievement across all schools. We would add to this list to remind the sector not to overlook the important benefits of independent governance by boards outside the electoral pressures and political incentives districts must navigate. Boards matter, and charter schools with strong, effective, diverse boards point to them as one of the reasons for their success.

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