Brizard and Pearson: Why Charter Boards Are the Key to School Success

See our full coverage of National Charter Schools Week

This week is National Charter Schools Week, a time to celebrate the teachers, students, school leaders, and others who make public charter schools such a vibrant part of America’s public education landscape.

Yet we often fail to celebrate some of the most important leaders in the charter school movement. These are the men and women who volunteer their time to serve on charter school boards.

Just like an elected district school board, charter school boards make important decisions about how their schools operate. They decide who will run the school, and they lay out the vision and culture those leaders should support. They oversee the academic and financial health of the school. When problems arise, board members must answer for them.

But charter schools typically have a nonprofit board structure. Unlike an elected district board, charter school board members are selected by existing board members. This proven governance method can make charter boards more collegial, more aligned around mission, and more likely to comprise the range of talent and expertise needed to run a quality school.

WATCH—What is (and isn’t) a charter school in 100 seconds:

We both have experience in this role. One of us is a former charter school board member now serving as the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), Washington, D.C.’s charter school authorizer. And one of us is a former chief executive of schools in Chicago who now serves on two charter school boards in D.C.

We know firsthand that charter school boards have a major influence on their schools’ performance, and we were pleased to see this reflected in a recent report from the Fordham Institute. The report analyzes the results of surveys completed by 325 school board members in D.C., representing 94 percent of the city’s charter schools. The responses were then compared to measures of school quality, including the results of DC PCSB’s School Quality Ratings and school re-enrollment rates. The results shed light on how boards should approach their responsibilities.

The report highlights the extraordinary civic engagement unleashed by D.C.’s charter schools: 639 individuals, including 130 parents, serve on charter boards. On the whole they are highly educated, are racially diverse, and represent a broad range of talents. The report finds that most charter school board members in D.C. are focused on the twin goals of “ensuring students achieve strong academic outcomes” and “providing a safe and stable learning environment.” While emphasizing these goals may seem obvious, previous research on elected school boards (outside D.C.) showed much wider variation in what board members thought should be their top priority. On D.C.’s charter school boards, a focus on strong academic outcomes and safe learning environments produces good results.

The survey also shows that D.C. charter board members generally have a good working knowledge of their school’s academic and financial performance. The highest-rated schools have board members who demonstrate the most accurate knowledge of their school’s current academic and financial status.

High-performing schools also have a larger percentage of board members who have received training in strategic planning, budgeting, and legal and policy issues. And they tend to have boards that meet about once a month – frequently enough to establish good working relationships among board members and resolve problems, without getting too deeply involved in the day-to-day running of the school or overburdening board members who are volunteering their time.

Board members of top public charter schools are also more likely to consider staff satisfaction when assessing school leaders. As the report authors note, teacher quality has the biggest impact on student performance, so it makes sense for boards to ensure that their school leaders are doing their best to maintain a great working environment for great teachers.

Finally, the report finds that boards of high-performing schools are more likely to formally evaluate the school leader. In our experience, the relationship between the school leader and their board, especially with the board chair, is a critical factor in the success of a school. It is exceptionally rare to find a high-performing school without finding a strong, supportive, and honest relationship between the school leader and board chair.

Another crucial relationship is between school boards and their authorizer. As an authorizer and a current board member, each of whom has had diverse experiences in education, we tap into each other’s expertise often. Our visions are aligned around giving every student a quality education, yet we know that board members overseeing one school’s operations may have a different perspective than an authorizer ensuring accountability for a portfolio of dozens of public schools.

Proactive communication is important, particularly because formal opportunities for school boards to meet with their authorizer may come about only every few years. DC PCSB differentiates its oversight. All charter school boards get regular written reports on their school’s performance data. But schools that have excellent academic and financial ratings may go several years without a formal meeting with their authorizer, unless they are seeking to amend their charters. Thus the most effective boards ensure that regular communication occurs between more formal meetings.

Effective school board oversight and excellent relationships between school boards and their authorizer are two big reasons D.C.’s charter sector is thriving. As we celebrate National Charter Schools Week, the Fordham study reinforces that the strength of our movement and the success of our students depends on supporting charter school boards in their essential responsibilities.

Scott Pearson is the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board and board chair of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Jean-Claude Brizard is the board chair of Capital City PCS and a board member of Rocketship Rise Academy PCS.

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