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In D.C. charters, can school boards make quality schools?

by Emily Leayman
Education Watchdog
October 12, 2016

The nation’s capital is home to some of the most influential minds of education, but they’re not only working on federal affairs — they also serve on school boards in the city’s large charter sector.

Based on a Thomas B. Fordham Institute survey of 325 members of 58 D.C. charter school boards, most have not served long terms, but they reciprocate with relevant work and training.

“It’s an attractive concept to be able to shape how schools function in a watchful eye of Congress and the president,” Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, told Watchdog.org. Allen, a long-time figure of the national education reform movement, joined the board this fall at the newly opened Washington Leadership Academy Public Charter School. She also serves on a foundation board at Challenge Charter School in Arizona.

Unlike traditional school board members, D.C. charter board members are appointed, not elected. The manageable workload can appeal to those with busy schedules. While district board members spend at least seven hours a month on board affairs, D.C. charter board members meet for six hours on average.

Half of the respondents served on the non-elected boards for two years or less, which Squire said can speak to the abundance of newer charter schools and terms being lower than traditional school boards.

“In some cases new eyes can be a benefit, but there’s something to be said for institutional history,” report co-author Juliet Squire told Watchdog.org.

Other indicators of engagement, like board members’ knowledge of their schools, also tie into school quality. Most of the board members of high-performing Tier 1 schools could correctly identify their tier school performance rating, while that percentage was lower for members of middle-performing (Tier 2) and low-performing (Tier 3) schools.

“I think it makes a lot of sense that boards that are more engaged are more likely to be high-quality schools,” said Squire.

Board member training is one form of engagement that can reflect school performance. Schools with high re-enrollment, one of the main criteria the charter-authorizing D.C. Public Charter School Board uses to grade schools, have more board members indicating they completed budget and strategic planning training. Allen agreed that having at least one board member with a financial background is ideal, and other members should learn as they go.

But Allen said that while engagement is important, measurements can be subjective. “The notion that somehow some schools have more engaged board members and others don’t is actually a big flaw of their report,” she said.

The survey shows that board members are already in tune with the community’s political views. A 2016 EducationNext poll shows Republican support for charter schools surpasses Democrats’ nationwide, but the latter makes up the majority of charter school board members in blue D.C.

“That’s probably a reason the charter school idea is no longer strictly a conservative notion,” said Squire.

But in terms of racial demographics, the 33 percent of black board members does not match the 76 percent black charter school population. Allen insists having board members that can help foster a quality school takes priority over creating a racial balance.

“There’s just no way you’d want to strive for a racial balance at the expense of the school,” she said.

Allen also argued that board members do not need to live in the same community as a school or come from the same background, especially since D.C. students enroll in charters from all over the city. More than three quarters of charter school students are economically disadvantaged, while over half of the board members taking the survey earn at least $200,000. Allen noted that disadvantaged D.C. families may not have the option of taking a volunteer position.

“We should get the best for kids, and having the best teachers and the best board members is really what we should be talking about,” she said.

Based on the survey responses, 30 percent of board members work in education, and 23 percent at some point have been educators.