How Charter School Boards Affect School Quality


A new Fordham Institute study, Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital, asks a simple but largely uninvestigated question: Do the characteristics, views, and practices of charter boards have any bearing on charter school quality?

To answer this critical question, we enlisted two of Bellwether Education Partners’ savviest analysts, Juliet Squire and Allison Crean Davis.

The object of our analysis, Washington D.C., has both pros and cons. It’s a good place to analyze charter board governance because its scale (sixty-two boards overseeing 112 campuses) is sufficient for comparisons. And it operates under a single set of laws and regulations, a uniform set of school-quality metrics, and a single authorizer that values transparency.

Yet the sector is also atypical. It is relatively large—enrolling nearly half of the city’s public school students—and high performing. This differentiates it from many others across the country that are less established, more fragile, and include suburban and rural charter schools, so we cannot and do not claim that our findings are generalizable beyond the nation’s capital.

Nevertheless, they paint a detailed and revealing portrait of what is occurring in D.C.—and what may be, could be, or should be occurring elsewhere. Our survey response rate was strong (over 50 percent), and although this work is not causal, it reveals some tantalizing differences between board members of higher- and lower-performing schools, as well as a number of notable similarities—all of which raise questions and hypotheses worth exploring elsewhere.

Five observations are particular noteworthy.

1. D.C. charter board membership provides a route by which the “best and the brightest” of the community have an opportunity to serve. Board members are typically highly educated, affluent, civic-minded, and well informed about the characteristics of their schools. They also care enough about the education of children other than their own (62 percent don’t have school-aged children) to devote themselves to trying to make schools better. Ninety-six percent graduated from a four-year college or university, and a whopping 79 percent have advanced degrees. Fifty-one percent report household income greater than $200,000 per year, 37 percent report between $100,000 and $200,000, and just 2 percent report income below $50,000. (In D.C., the median household income in 2014 was $91,000.)  Less than a third are currently or was formerly employed in education.

Some might be tempted, in fact, to label them the oft-derided “Washington elite” that today’s populists claim have taken over our nation’s capital. The fine men and women who have volunteered to serve on the city’s charter boards don’t fit the stereotype. They are selfless, committed, and competent—and are likely one part, perhaps a vital part, of the reason why D.C.’s charter sector is so high-performing.

2. D.C. boards appear to benefit from training related to school governance. Despite the pitiful state of teacher professional development, we found a relationship between board training and school quality. Charter board members of higher-quality schools were more likely to participate in specific kinds of training. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about the quality of that training—though we have an inkling of its content. We know, for instance, that charter boards in higher-quality schools tend to participate in training about developing and approving a school budget, as well as in how to comply with relevant legal and policy issues. Clearly we need to learn more about the quality, ideal amount, and substance of this training, given its association with school quality.

3. Charter board members in D.C. are diverse, balanced in age, and politically liberal. Members are 53 percent white, 33 percent black, and 5 percent Hispanic. Thirty percent are between the ages of thirty-one and forty, 33 percent between ages forty-one and fifty, and 35 percent over the age of fifty. Politically, 56 percent are liberal, 34 percent moderate, and just 7 percent conservative. (Of course, the District of Columbia is among the bluest political jurisdictions in the country.) Another big difference is that, unlike most board members in traditional school districts, charter board members do not have to run for election.

4. Not making people stand for election allows the charter sector to tap a deeper pool of talent for board membership. Regardless of how one might feel about elected school boards, elections might discourage otherwise willing and capable individuals from serving on a board. Campaigning in today’s fraught political environment is no picnic, especially when your plate is already brimming with a full-time job and family. Besides the cost in dollars and effort, “pro-reform” board candidates often get skewered by local unions. Therefore, an appointed board of a nonunion school might be more appealing and effective, free from the headaches of collective bargaining. There’s also a higher chance that principals and board members are likeminded and supportive of one another because, unlike superintendents and district school boards, their working relationship is not subject to the vagaries of the latest election returns.

5. One way to recruit and keep talented, busy professionals on charter school boards is to make the job doable. Part of the reason that D.C. charter boards can attract the best and brightest (other than the fact that there are lots of high-achieving professionals in D.C.) is that their workload on those boards is manageable. Many charter boards meet every six to eight weeks, and members spend an average of six hours per month on board service. External organizations—like Charter Board Partners, BoardSource, and BoardOnTrack—also equip boards to maximize efficiency by helping staff them with talented individuals and providing ongoing professional development. Charter supporters and reform leaders in other cities should take note.

• • •

Furthermore, our research shows that board members of higher-performing D.C. charter schools, when compared to those at lower-performing ones, are more knowledgeable about their schools (particularly relative to its performance rating, demographics, and financial outlook), and more apt to evaluate their leaders using staff satisfaction as a factor in doing so.

One might take from these findings that good charter board members are the same as good board members in other organizations. They set the right priorities, do their homework, monitor performance, and evaluate the organization’s leadership.

But like the boards of nonprofit organizations—and unlike those of traditional school districts—charter boards have the potential to attract the best and brightest with little downside. You don’t have to run for election. You don’t have to bargain with an antagonistic union. You have much greater say about budgets and personnel. And you don’t spend endless hours every week on school business.

Therefore, education-minded civic leaders who want to engage directly with schools may find that joining a charter board is a terrific option. And charter schools stand to benefit from their service.

—Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Flypaper.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College