Tag Archives: Governance

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.

The Detroit Education Commission: A Big Step For Motown Schools

The April bill paving the way for the transfer of schools from the Louisiana Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) made the policy world sit up and take notice. It signaled the next chapter in America’s most ambitious education reform story. Most observers were glad to see the schools transferred back to local control but uneasy about OPSB taking the reins, with the exception of my colleague Andy Smarick who has pragmatic concerns about the policy mechanisms and would have voted against the move.

But policy analysts have given far less attention to a similar debate about the future governance of charter schools in Michigan, where a broad and diverse Detroit-based coalition, the Democratic mayor, Republican governor, and the state senate are supporting the creation of the Detroit Education Commission (DEC) through SB710.

[UPDATE: MI House passes DPS debt relief bill HB 5384 which does NOT include the DEC]

The DEC is important because it offers an entirely new governance model for urban education, which is sorely needed: Detroit Public Schools (DPS) is the worst large urban school district and is thirty days away from running out of money. The rest of the landscape is bedlam too. The DEC will accommodate multiple operators (a district, charters, and a state-run district), coordinate their efforts, and put them on a level playing field. To do this, the DEC would have four responsibilities:

  1. Develop and publish an annual supply-and-demand report to measure gaps in school services.
  2. Develop a single A-F accountability system for all public schools (DPS and charters) and publish the results widely.
  3. Allow any school that earns an A or B grade to replicate freely. All new schools or lower performing schools must earn approval from the DEC before opening or replicating (again, applies to DPS and charters).
  4. Require an authorizer (in the case of charters) or the state (in the case of DPS) to intervene in any school that earns an F grade (i.e., close or transform the school).

Importantly, the DEC wouldn’t run schools. It wouldn’t control budgets. By law, it would be restricted to those four functions listed above. The DEC’s siting and accountability plans must be approved by the state and shared broadly before any action can be taken. And any action the DEC takes can be appealed by schools to the state.

A recent meeting of city, district, and charter leaders improved upon the bill by adding three amendments to make city-owned facilities equally accessible to charters and district schools, apply standards for school openings and closings equally between district and charter schools, and decouple the financial condition of DPS and the DEC.

The legislation isn’t perfect. For instance, the DEC is supposed to operate on $1 million annually, which seems very lean for an agency that will require top talent, deep analysis, serious community engagement, and constant communication of important information.

On a more technical note, the relationship between the DEC and charter authorizers isn’t clear; it hasn’t been since Governor Rick Snyder’s initial proposal. When I read deeper into SB710, it was clear that things could get complicated if the DEC, an authorizer, the State School Reform Office, and the state superintendent disagree on whether a specific school should open in a specific location. The accountability lines aren’t as clean as I’d like them to be, but that’s a function of policy proposals going through the meat grinder of negotiations.

While it’s not the swift quantum leap that Louisiana took with the Recovery School District, it is a positive incremental step toward a modern urban school governance model. The DEC accomplishes the important tasks of providing local control, establishing an enforceable focus on quality, and matching schools to neighborhood need. Oh, and it’s supported by key constituencies: the state senate, the mayor, the governor, the DPS superintendent, many Detroit charter leaders, parents, and business leaders.

However, should the DEC be established, the risk of “Detroit fatigue” in Michigan’s capital of Lansing could mean lawmakers aren’t willing to do the kind of long-term shepherding that’s needed to improve on an important first step. Accountability lines should be clarified. Mid-course corrections will have to be made. In the unfortunate case that the DEC isn’t producing the results it’s supposed to within five years, the bill states that it must sunset — a prudent clause for a high-stakes new endeavor.

If the only other option is a debt-free district with a sketchy track record and a Wild West charter sector, it seems like a risk worth taking.

David Esselman Joins Bellwether as Entrepreneur-in-Residence

Esselman no backgroundThe Bellwether team is very pleased to announce that David Esselman has joined us as an entrepreneur-in-residence to launch a new organization (whose working name has been the “Center for the School System of the Future”). The organization, which will eventually spin out of Bellwether as its own nonprofit, will build upon the most encouraging developments and best thinking around creating ideal urban school systems.

In short: This effort will aim to help city and state leaders generate diverse, high-quality school systems that are designed to succeed, because they are driven by families, responsive to community needs, and constructed to propel their own improvement. These will be systems that give underserved families lots of great schools from which to choose.

This coming organization will spread the word about terrific efforts already underway, build a movement to support those leading the charge, and lend an on-the-ground hand to those engaged in this work.

When we began our national search for a founding executive director, we couldn’t have anticipated the number of extraordinarily talented education leaders who would express interest in the role. It encourages us greatly that some of the most committed, seasoned, forward-leaning professionals in our field want to dedicate their energy and talents to this particular reform strategy. But their interest is also a convincing signal of our strong, collective desire to bring about meaningful, lasting change.

We are so fortunate and excited to have David launch this venture. During our selection process, David impressed us on many fronts. He exuded both a commitment to excellence and a humble, nuanced understanding of the complicated historical, cultural, racial, and class dynamics associated with this work. He brings a sharp intellect and deep knowledge of and experience with complex education systems. Perhaps most importantly, though, David–for a host of personal and professional reasons–is devoted to ensuring all boys and girls have access to great schools.

So you can get to know him a little better, David agreed to tackle a few questions from me, below. Continue reading

Six Factors Pushing Education Governance into the Reform Spotlight

Earlier this month, Bellwether, together with the Donnell-Kay and Gates Family Foundations convened a small group of thought leaders and practitioners from across the country to discuss the latest theories in governance and learn from the cities that are implementing innovative governance models.

I kicked off the meeting with a presentation on the state of education governance in the US. To level set and to keep us focused on the summit’s topic, I started with a definition of governance from the Institute for Governance and the Council of Europe’s 12 principles for good governance at the local level. Guiding principles like these remind me that governance is a part of democracy that’s designed and redesigned to suit a society’s changing needs rather than a permanent fixture to be left alone.

For the rest of my presentation, I described six major forces that are pushing governance to the forefront of the national education reform conversation as well as the likely future impact of ESSA and the polarizing political landscape. Here are a few of the most illustrative slides from that presentation.

State of Education Governance 2015 AOH

 

1) Districts in Distress
State of Education Governance 2015 AOH tuda
Many urban school districts experience academic and financial distress. Academic distress is born out clearly in the latest TUDA results that show stark achievement gaps between white and black students and little improvement in the last twelve years. On the financial side, each state has a different method of defining and monitoring financial distress, but they all point to a similar trend – many urban districts have struggled to stay solvent. State receivership is often the result and bankruptcy looms as a drastic measure. Outsized financial pressures in big city school districts often serve as a window of opportunity for leaders to explore the option of a new governance model, but financial distress should never be cheered, encouraged, or seen as brush clearing. Insolvency has incredible destabilizing effects that go far beyond a school district and into entire communities. Continue reading