Time to eliminate charter school boards of directors

In an article by my friend Carrie Irvin, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Education Board Partners, she points to a recent study by the D.C. Policy Center entitled “The State of D.C. Schools”. She wrote:

“In the nation’s capital, 2 out of 3 students score below proficient in reading, writing and math.  That number is startling–and it’s just the average.  The picture is even worse at many of our city’s schools.  The report also states that about half of all public school students in this city are designated at-risk, according to the city’s criteria.”

There is nothing new here. It is frankly disgusting that in Washington D.C., after twenty five years of school reform, there is a persistent 60 point academic achievement gap combined with the fact that the proportion of students proficient in English Language Arts and math is in the thirties.

The Education Board Partners CEO calls for stronger boards to fix the problems with academic achievement. In order to have a quality school she suggests, among other recommendations, that boards:

  • “Ask your ED challenging questions that they are not answering readily or proactively, so that you really have the information you need to know if your school is high quality.
  • Use data at all times to drive board decisions.  Make sure you look at ALL data (student achievement, attendance, discipline, staff retention, promotion, pay scale, etc.) broken down by race, gender, special needs status, etc.
  • Pay attention to data about attendance, school safety, etc., as these and many other factors dramatically impact student achievement.
  • In particular, pay attention to staff morale.  Fortune, who now works at the school of which she originally served on the board, noted that most boards ignore this, yet it’s one of the most important factors determining the success of the school.  Ask the ED, and review data, about race relations, pay equity/disparities, and staff satisfaction. Take action to boost morale in meaningful ways.”

I’m sincerely sorry, but at this point I do not feel that any of these steps is going to correct our desperate situation regarding public education in the nation’s capital.

My experience with charter school boards has been decidedly mixed. In the case of Washington Latin PCS the governors were able to turnaround a dire financial situation and eventually secure a permanent facility while creating a budgetary structure that would promote its future success. But other time spent volunteering hours on these bodies has not been nearly as positive.

In fact, I would say that in the great majority of cases the nonprofit boards I have sat on have had little impact on the direction of the organization. They have seemed more of a nuisance then a help to the heads of charters. Much of the activity of these bodies involved instructing members on the proper role of trustees and educating them on how charter schools function. Infighting between the director is common, whether that is between themselves or involving staff.

Do not get me wrong. I definitely see the value that outsiders can bring to the exceptionally difficult job of running a school. People have expertise in areas such as fundraising, real estate, legal issues, and management that can bring tremendous benefits. Americans are generally exceptionally generous with their time and resources. However, I just do not believe anymore that a formal structure is required to obtain assistance from talented hardworking members of our community.

The success or failure of a school is determined by the leader of that school. We are so fortunate in the District to have so many of examples that prove this point. If we are truly serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to support and develop those who can get this job done.

Eliminating charter school boards of directors would also serve to remove the often repeated claim that these institutions are privately run. Charters would report directly to the DC Public Charter School Board, a government entity whose volunteer members are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council.

None of this suggestion is meant in anyway to take away from the outstanding work being done by Education Board Partners. In the past if I had a board issue, I would contact Ms. Irvin. I would do this today.

It would take a change to the law to eliminate charter school nonprofit boards. However, I think we have reached the point where governance can move into the twenty-first century.

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