What do we know about charter boards?

Juliet Squire

When it comes to education policy, some look to Washington or to Lansing. But the real action is closer to home.

Independent local boards govern each of Detroit’s charter schools and make policy and governance decisions every day that matter more to students than anything happening at the U.S. Department of Education.

Detroit’s charter boards include hundreds of parents, community members, and business leaders who volunteer their time to help schools achieve their missions. They have a legal and moral obligation to ensure their school provides students with a high-quality education.

As with district and charter boards across the country, however, we know remarkably little about them. Who serves on Detroit’s charter boards? How do they function? And which board characteristics and practices contribute to the quality of a charter school?

These are important questions to ask. It’s the board that signs a school’s contract (or “charter”) with its authorizer, the entity empowered by state law to approve and oversee charter schools. The charter outlines a school’s terms of operation and expectations for performance and, if the school falls short, it’s the board that must answer for it. Boards also hire, evaluate, and fire school leaders; sign contracts with management organizations; and review and approve school budgets. If they believe the school is getting off track, they have the authority and responsibility to change leadership, management or how resources are spent.

Charter boards often provide pivotal strategic direction and are responsible for deciding whether and how a high-performing school might expand to serve more kids. As charter schools serve an increasing proportion of student populations in cities like Detroit, they may also take on a greater voice in decisions that affect the city’s education system — advocating for policies on issues such as transportation, facilities, or unified enrollment that can expand parents’ access to high-quality schools of choice.

Unfortunately, education policymakers, researchers, and analysts know very little about charter boards — in Detroit or elsewhere. Authorizers typically collect key information including board members’ names, places of employment, areas of expertise and any potential conflicts of interest. There is also some data about how boards operate, since most states’ open-meeting laws apply to charter schools and board-meeting minutes are a matter of public record.

In a recent report for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, my co-author Allison Crean Davis and I begin to address the paucity of information on charter boards. We surveyed charter board members in Washington, D.C., and found several tantalizing (though not causal) relationships between school quality and board member practices, including board members’ knowledge of their school, school leader evaluations and board training. Our report is one of the first to use data to understand and analyze charter boards — but we hope it won’t be the last.

Detroit’s education leaders are actively seeking to close low-performing charters and expand high-performing charters. But these efforts too often assign blame or give credit to school leaders, management organizations, and authorizers with little regard for the crucial role of the board in setting the conditions for success, or thwarting it.

These groups of dedicated citizens hold important lessons for the success of the charter sector. Yet we won’t know how to learn from them until we study them.

Juliet Squire is a principal at Bellwether Education Partners.