Understanding the Roles of Public Charter School Boards and Authorizers

(Cross Posted from fordhaminstitute.org and written by our deputy director, Naomi Rubin DeVeaux)

Public charter school boards are often overlooked when it comes to assessing who and what contributes to public charter school quality. Yet these boards play an essential role. They provide the strategic vision for the school, hire leaders to run the school, hold those leaders accountable for academic success, and provide financial oversight. My colleagues and I at the D.C. Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), Washington, D.C.’s single public charter school authorizer, are in regular contact with public charter school board members as we carry out our responsibilities in approving new schools, providing oversight, permitting expansions and replications, and (when necessary) closing public charter schools.

The Fordham Institute’s new report Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital provides an important perspective about the composition and practices of boards, and how some of those practices align with strong school results. Another blog post recently summarized the report’s methods and findings, but a couple of points jumped out at me as an authorizer.

Firstly, the study confirms what we see anecdotally—that schools with strong academic outcomes have engaged, trained, and informed board members. They know their school: the demographics of their students and their strengths and weaknesses. We see schools benefitting greatly from having board members who fully understand their role and responsibility, and have an expectation of high academic results for the students who attend their schools.

Secondly—and more to our surprise—the study revealed that public charter school board members are less clear about their role vis-à-vis us, their authorizer. DC PCSB’s role is to hold school boards accountable, and the school board is responsible for hiring the school leader and overseeing his or her performance.

Respondents to the study had a range of notions about our role. For instance, less than half, 47 percent, responded that we hold the school leader or network leader accountable, when in fact that is the board’s responsibility. While another 65 percent understood that DC PCSB holds the school’s board accountable for the performance of the school, and 68 percent acknowledged our responsibility to close underperforming schools, that still means that roughly a third of school board members surveyed weren’t clear about these core authorizer responsibilities.

Some of the confusion may stem from the fact that different boards have different levels and types of interaction with DC PCSB, depending on the quality of their school and the particular issues they’re facing. While we hold all boards (and by extension all schools) to the same high standards, we have multiple methods of communicating with school boards and not all boards need to hear the same message.

For instance, when academic performance is consistently low, or we see a warning sign that a school may be running into academic or financial trouble, we hold board-to-board meetings. Members of the school’s board and school’s leadership come in to meet with DC PCSB and we have candid discussions about the school, including the problems we see, and solutions the school board and leadership may be undertaking. We’ve found that these meetings help boards to better understand their role and make informed decisions about their school’s performance.

Conversely, when schools are Tier 1 (high performing) we may engage in conversations with board chairs and school leaders about expansion and replicating, encouraging the school to consider providing more spaces for students currently on public charter school waiting lists.

We directly send all board chairs information about school performance, such as our school financial audit review; our qualitative site review reports (which describe our assessment of their instruction and culture); our school quality reports (which include academic performance outcomes); and our equity reports (which break down by student population each school’s academic and non-academic performance).

These reports, which are also made available to the public, give the board chair direct information about the school. This is important because most public charter school boards obtain all their information from the school’s leader. In cases where a school is underperforming, the leader may not be fully candid when explaining the potential consequences of this situation. By giving information directly to school boards, we can ensure that they know everything we know.

For all schools, regardless of their student performance, the board chairs and school heads are invited to meet with us three times a year at our “charter leaders meeting”. These meetings allow us to connect directly with a school’s leadership, discuss their performance, and address any issues that may be on the horizon.

Finally, we are always open and available to any board member who wishes to meet with us. While we never get involved in the day-to-day management of a school, we are always ready to serve as a resource for boards as they ensure that their school leaders are running schools well.

The picture of D.C. charter school boards that emerges from Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital is one of a highly committed group of people who are passionate about the education of the city’s children and who go above and beyond to give students excellent school choices. At DC PCSB, we work hard to be a valuable resource for boards while fulfilling our responsibility to ensure accountability throughout the sector. We’re glad to have good partners on public charter school boards.

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