Lessons for L.A. on Improving District-Charter Relations

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Lessons for L.A. on Improving District-Charter Relations

Michelle King, the new superintendent at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), has been on a listening tour. A 30-plus year veteran of the district who has risen from the teacher ranks, King wants to connect with parents and share her plans for the district, then hear their concerns—standard practice for an incoming schools’ chief. But for her first stop, King chose a low-income neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, where there are some strong and popular charter schools. In front of 700 parents, she made Los Angeles Times headlines when she “called for traditional public school and charters...to work together.” She added that delivering a strong education is “something we need to do together. I can’t do this alone.”

LA school enrollment graph



Hard to say if King was trying to appeal to parents in the room, many of them with children in charter schools, or if this really is a priority for her. Either way, it was a smart move. In L.A., the political fights around charter schools are intense. When a draft of an Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation proposal to double the size of the charter sector was made public, the response from LAUSD was that more charter schools would bankrupt the district. But parents in L.A. understand what many district and charter veterans often can’t: when your child is learning and loves school, you don't care if it's a district school or a charter school. You thank your lucky stars and hope it lasts.

Indeed, King’s message to parents was well received, but working across tense district-charter lines is easier said than done. Luckily for King, if she is serious, there are many examples of how it can work.

Ironically, she might look first at her own hometown. In 2010, LAUSD and local charter school leaders signed a District-Charter Collaboration Compact that resulted in an important win-win. In 2011 LAUSD voted unanimously to provide charter schools with a new option to fund special education services that affords them key flexibility and autonomy over those services. For the district, this shift helped ensure that those services and dollars were locally provided and administered.

But despite its bold language, much of L.A.’s original compact has gone stagnant, including the idea of shared principal training and a plan to combine lobbying efforts to increase funding for all public schools. Maybe it’s time for L.A. to revisit these and other shared goals.

More than 25 cities around the country are forging partnerships across traditional battle lines in ways that might offer ideas for L.A. and other cities. Some cities have made progress on the very goals outlined in L.A.’s compact:

  • Philadelphia Public Schools partnered with a high-performing charter management organization, Mastery Public Schools, to create PhillyPLUS, a cross-sector principal training program that has placed over 60 principals in both district and charter schools, as well as Catholic schools.
  • Both Hartford and Chicago Public Schools, together with their local charter leaders, successfully advocated at the Connecticut and Illinois state houses for increased public education funding.

There are other types of collaborations as well:

  • Boston Public Schools provided facilities in the neediest neighborhoods for high-performing charter schools to ensure that strong new schools go where they are most needed.
  • Denver and New Orleans created family-friendly common enrollment processes where parents filled out one application to apply to any public school in the city.
  • Chicago and Nashville created uniform school performance frameworks that allow for easy comparisons of all schools for performance and other factors.

CRPE has closely watched how districts and charter schools interact for more than a decade. What drives successful collaboration are the hard realities of shared resources and responsibilities, not lofty goals. L.A. is one of dozens of cities where charter school enrollment is climbing above 20 percent. The charter sector can no longer operate as a fringe and independent entity. Charter schools will need access to buildings and other resources to continue to grow. Families in L.A., especially the less educated and less advantaged, will need help navigating their increased choices. And the district will indeed fail financially if it can’t find ways to adopt successful charter practices. It’s past time for both charters and LAUSD to see each other as resources instead of rivals.

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