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Charter Board Partners

Is Governance Having a Moment?

October 14, 2016 | by Carrie C. Irvin

Wow, these are heady times for those of us interested in the power of governing boards in the public charter sector—lots of governance talk out there!  We know that great schools need great boards, great boards need great board members, diverse boards are stronger boards, and boards matter.  Here are three items from this week that pumped up the governance conversations. 

First, last month’s report by the Thomas J. Fordham Institute and Bellwether about charter school boards in Washington, DC continues to get play, building some buzz and momentum around the importance of learning more about who serves on charter school boards and diving into the link between effective boards and quality schools. Most recently, Juliet Squire's blog post highlights the one of the biggest benefits of independent governance for public schools: decision making at the school level means more nimble boards, the ability to change what's not working quickly, and the time and space to grapple with the most important issues of schooling, not the demands of a sprawling bureaucracy.  Squire notes, "Individually, each charter board makes consequential decisions for their school. But collectively, their decisions shape how the whole sector evolves."  We agree, and add that these hundreds of community members mean exponentially more community involvement in education decision making, which to us feels more democratic than a handful of politically elected board members making decisions for hundreds of schools and many thousands of children.

Second, the Business Roundtable came out with a revision of its governance principles, and for the first time, strongly endorsed the importance of diverse boards, in terms of race and gender, and linked board diversity with improved board effectiveness and the creation of shareholder value.  The New York Times noted that "the association has made the first substantive “business case” for ethnic and gender diversity."  Further, said the Times:

By correlating diverse boards with greater board effectiveness and the promotion of long-term value creation, the association’s recommendation transcends public policy debates and moral imperatives. It is the most prominent acknowledgment of diversity as a governance principle, and a standard that nominating committees are advised to adopt. It does not retreat from principles of competency-based governance as much as it recasts concepts of competency in a more inclusive manner — one that attributes new value to skills, experience and expertise that is reflective of the broader range of society. And its merits are as applicable to private companies and large nonprofit organizations as they are to public companies.

In the largely white, male world of governance (the picture is not much better for nonprofits than for corp boards), this message should, and hopefully will, have a ripple effect, and change the makeup of boards across the sectors and across the country. We hope.

Finally, yesterday, Watchdog.org published a blog that appeared to me to be implying that having a racially diverse board entails a necessary sacrifice in quality, and that organizations need to choose whether to prioritize diversity or quality.  We could not disagree with this insinuation more strongly, and we are saddened at what we read to be this publication's perpetuation of this outdated and offensive assertion.  As the Times said in the above-referenced piece: "Calls for greater boardroom diversity are nothing new. Yet the business group’s recommendation carries special weight. This is no academic exercise; it’s the view of C-Suite leaders."   

All in all, an important week for those of us who believe that boards really matter, and in the world of public education, their decisions directly impact the quality of the education students receive.  We look forward to working with those in the education, nonprofit, and business community who agree.