Date: 
Thursday, January 19, 2012

Districts and charters forging partnerships, but collaboration brings own risks and challenges

Seattle, WA - Charter schools are public schools. Historically, however, the relationship between school districts and charters has been nonexistent at best, antagonistic at worst. As the charter sector continues to grow steadily, an analysis of the national landscape explores how that relationship needs to start changing, and where it already has.

Hopes, Fears, & Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2011, published by the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), provides a clear roadmap for school districts and charter schools interested in working together to improve education options. The report, CRPE's sixth such overview of the charter sector, explains the risks and technical challenges behind charter-district collaboration and provides powerful examples of how they can be overcome.

Hopes, Fears, & Reality is an invaluable resource to help districts and charter schools provide the best opportunities available to improve student outcomes, said Kelly Sparks, Director of the National Charter School Resource Center at the American Institutes for Research, which funded the report. The report provides concrete strategies and ideas for districts as they manage traditional schools, charters, and other school choice programs.

The report is timely. More than 20 urban districts have adopted what is known as a portfolio strategy, where district-run and independent charter schools are treated equally and held to the same performance standards. In 16 cities to date, leaders have signed public compacts committing to put aside differences and work together for student success. These cities are creating common student enrollment systems, sharing facilities, equalizing funding, encouraging teachers and principals to share instructional strategies, and sharing responsibility for students with special needs.

Robin J. Lake, CRPE's associate director and the co-editor of Hopes, Fears, & Reality, says that these district leaders have realized that economically, politically, and academically, school districts and charter schools can no longer afford to go it alone. Urban school superintendents across the country are realizing that a centrally delivered, one-size-fits-all approach simply is not viable, and that they need partnerships to bring in entrepreneurial talent and mission-driven teams, Lake writes.

The report includes:

  • Guidance on how to arm parents with knowledge to help them navigate district-wide choice systems (from Paul Teske of University of Colorado, Denver) and how to create city-wide enrollment systems that take charter schools into account (from Tom DeWire of Baltimore Public Schools).
  • An instructive guide to how the school district and charter schools came to share financial resources and facilities in Denver, by Parker Baxter of CRPE.
  • An analysis by Lake and co-editor Betheny Gross of CRPE of how district and charter schools can together provide better options for students with special needs.
  • A close look, by 4.0 Schools' Matt Candler, at one organization's attempt to train and incubate school leaders to create a strong supply of effective new charter and district schools in the Southeast region of the U.S.

The report also provides new facts about the nation's more than 5,000 charter schools and their students. CRPE research finds that charters are expanding in rural areas, small towns, and small states; that charters serve a growing share of Hispanic and low-income students; and that freestanding charter schools are growing faster than those run by charter management organizations.

Charter-district cooperation, the report makes clear, is not a simple proposition. Even where the parties have begun to cooperate, not every actor is on board, and failure in any arena can intensify the mistrust that collaboration is meant to diffuse.

To further the conversation, CRPE has invited a host of analysts to air their views about district-charter collaboration. Read the commentaries here.

Hopes, Fears, & Reality is funded by the National Charter School Resource Center at American Institutes for Research as part of its mission to provide the resources, information, and technical assistance to support high-quality charter schools. The resource center is funded through the U.S. Department of Education.