Nearly half of all D.C. children attend charter schools, which are publicly funded, free and open to all. Charters are also free from many of the regulations governing traditional public schools, and each one operates with plenty of autonomy and independence.
That means what happens at these schools — and there are about 100 of them — is shaped not by the city's schools chancellor or mayor, but by the individual boards that oversee them.
We spoke this week with Carrie Irvin, the head of Charter Board Partners. It's an education nonprofit that supports and promotes effective public charter school governance.
Is serving on a charter school board different from the usual stereotype of serving on a board?
Serving on a public charter school board is not I show up twice a year, I vote like the person next to me because he looks smart and then I go about my way and put it on my resume.
In this city, when the authorizer grants a charter, they grant it to the board, not to the school leader. Charter schools have budgets of 8, 10, 12 some as high as 25 million dollars. Our organization was founded so we could, in part, help board members understand what they need to be doing.
Is the “friends and family board” still an issue in D.C. charters?
The “friends and family” board is quite common throughout the non-profit sector. That’s not inherently a bad thing. Charter schools are founded around a compelling and inspiration vision so of course you want people around the table who share that vision. However there are several problems with “friends and family” boards.
First of all, they tend to share a lot in common so they look the same, they come from the same backgrounds very often and they bring very similar and overlapping skill sets. The other issue that we see is this issue of true independence and accountability. Sometimes the founder of the school or the leader of the school turns out not to have the right skill set or not be the best person suited to lead the school.
If you’re talking about a “friends and family” board, every single person was recruited personally by that school leader and that makes it nearly impossible frankly for the board to do what’s in the best interest of the school. When board members have been independently recruited, they’ve been recruited because of the mission and because of their skill set; it’s more likely that board will bring the clear thinking that is necessary to look out for the interests of the students.
What skill sets are important to have to serve on a charter school board?
There absolutely are there are resume skills that we need around every board. So finance, legal, education expertise but there are certain skills that have been overlooked in nonprofit governance, especially charter school governance.
For example, PR and Communications. We have 60 charter schools in D.C. They have to attract families they have to attract teachers, they have to attract funds. So every charter school really has to distinguish themselves in this crowded marketplace.
Secondly the charter school board employs the head of school. The board itself is responsible for monitoring the progress of that leader and again, if necessary, replacing that leader. It’s really helpful to have someone with Human Resources expertise on the board.
But again, the other thing is the non-resume skills, temperament, motivation, these characteristics of board members are really the glue that hold the whole thing together. So we try to put together boards that can really come together like high functioning teams.
Should charter school boards be responsible in cases of financial and academic failures?
I believe yes. That is the power of independent governance is that there is accountability. You don’t see companies that are doing a terrible job and there boards just say “it’s hard, they’ll be fine.” We want the kind of results orientation and insisting on excellence that we see in other sectors and that we see in the best charter schools.
Do charter school board make mistakes? What types?
Probably the biggest and saddest mistake is that we really have run across more board members than I like to say who actually don’t believe that children living in poverty or children of color cannot achieve at the highest levels. If that’s coming from the top, what can we expect?
Another big mistake we see, focusing on the wrong things. We worked with a school a few years ago, very low performing. And the board was very focused on finding a permanent facility. Not that that’s not important but at that time that was not the most important thing. You can move to another building and the culture problems and the instructions problems will continue. So we really helped that board refocus on what was most important, which is always student achievement. So we do see boards focusing on the more concrete challenges that have a beginning, middle and end and so of a right answer.
We also see a lot of boards that are not data-driven. When you have a school leader that does not trust her board they’re much less likely to be candid and proactive about the problems. There might be mounting evidence that the test scores are declining but instead of bringing that to the board for fear of being penalized the school leader will come and tell anecdote. The third-grader who played in a city wide violin competition and we tell our boards that anecdotes are not a substitute for data.
Same with financial data. “Oh, I don’t know a lot about financial stuff but Joe does. He’s an accountant and I’m sure he’s got a handle on everything.” Not everybody on the board needs to be a CPA, but it is the fiduciary responsibility of every single board member to truly understand the finances. We’ve seen instances in this city where board members say, “well, I didn’t know that.” That cannot be an excuse.
Music: "Sonatine Bureaucratique" by Erik Satie from Daniel Varsano performs Satie Piano Works
This report is part of American Graduate — Let's Make It Happen! — a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.