Charter Board Members Shape DC’s Charter Sector in Countless Small Ways

In a new report “Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” my co-author Allison Crean Davis and I provide a wealth of new information on charter boards in Washington, DC. But there’s one simple fact that merits further consideration: 62 different boards oversee the schools that enroll nearly half of the city’s children. Individually, each charter board makes consequential decisions for their school. But collectively, their decisions shape how the whole sector evolves.

School-level governance means charter boards can act quickly, approve the roll out (or roll back) of programs in response to feedback, and even address individual student or parent concerns. Decisions at this scale can be faster, more responsive, and less bureaucratic than those at the district or state level. In short, it is far easier to change the course of a speedboat than the Queen Mary (or the Titanic, depending on your optimism regarding district reform efforts).

Depending on a school’s particular challenges, one charter board may spend a great deal of time and energy debating whether and how to increase the salaries of their teachers. Another may focus on student recruitment and retention. A third may spend most of its time searching for their next school leader. The open responses to our survey showed board members wrestling with each of these issues and many more. In these myriad discussions and decisions, small organizations are responding and adapting to changing needs, problems, new information, and opportunities.

We note in our report a number of data points that suggest boards of low-quality charter schools are changing their practices. As we might expect, the boards of the highest-quality schools are most likely to evaluate their school leaders, they meet most often, and they have the most accurate knowledge of their school’s student population. However, the board practices of low-quality schools fall between those of high- and middling-quality schools rather than below them.

These data points present the possibility that board members of low-quality schools are responding to their own sense of urgency to improve school quality and/or pressure from the DC Public Charter School Board. (More research, especially analyzing board practices and school quality over time, would shed valuable light here.)

School-level governance means that the potential impact of a charter board’s actions are correspondingly smaller than the potential impact of an urban district’s comprehensive reform plan. However, school-level governance also enables each charter school to adapt more quickly, in a thousand small ways. Meanwhile, the education policy community watches to see whether these adaptations collectively fulfill the promise of a continuously improving charter sector. I’m optimistic.

You can read the full report here.