Six-year study finds progress on discipline, special education, enrollment, but too often cities lack resolve and commitment to realize full benefits
Seattle, WA – In more than two dozen cities across America, public charter schools and traditional district schools are putting aside their ideological differences to share resources, ideas, strategies, and responsibilities to benefit students and families, according to a report released today by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell.
In Boston, district, charter, and Catholic school educators participated in joint professional development to improve instruction for underserved students, including English language learners, special education students, and black and Latino males.
In New Orleans, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state have partnered with local charter schools on an innovative cost-sharing program that helps ensure the best resources and education for students with special needs, regardless of what type of school they attend.
In Denver, New Orleans, and Camden, districts and charter schools have joined forces on unified enrollment systems to simplify the school-application process for families.
In Washington DC, the school district and the DC Charter Board have worked together to improve equity across all schools by reporting more transparent discipline data.
District-charter tension and divisions are still prevalent—in the headlines and the neighborhoods. But CRPE’s research shows an increasing number of cities are interested in building bridges and focusing on ways to work together to improve all schools for students and families.
“Education leaders in many cities have moved the conversations in their communities past the divisive question of whether to collaborate across sectors and have focused on how to do that to benefit kids,” said CRPE Director and lead author Robin Lake. “We wanted to take a close look at what allowed these traditional enemies to work well together and which partnerships had the biggest payoffs across all schools.”
Over the past six years, CRPE researchers have conducted hundreds of interviews with district, charter, and community leaders in 23 cities that have formalized partnerships by signing District-Charter Collaboration Compacts supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Researchers also tracked cooperative efforts across the nation as part of CRPE’s nearly decade-long work with cities that are pursuing a portfolio strategy, where charter schools are part of a citywide approach to ensuring every child in every neighborhood has access to a great school.
The tangible benefits of working together can include:
- For communities: More high-quality seats available for students; higher-quality options available for English-language learners and students with special needs; and more streamlined information and systems for families.
- For school districts: A partner in the work of ensuring high-quality schools in every neighborhood; sharing burdens like talent pipeline and professional development; and access to charter innovation, professional development, and expertise.
- For charter schools: Improved access to facilities, funding, and families; reduced political tensions; exposure to district expertise; and increased reach and impact.
In Denver, the unified enrollment system provides families with greater transparency around admissions, better school information, and a more manageable and fairer enrollment process. The district and charters have also partnered on reworking funding policies to address inequities in special education services.
"It wasn't easy to break down the walls and tension,” said Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg, “but we knew there were things we could learn from each other and that, in the end, we share the same mission: helping all kids succeed. So we pushed through, and it's really paid off. We've simplified our choice system; we have high-demand charters that use district facilities; and charters have really stepped up on being accessible to all kids."
While the report shows what is possible when competitors become collaborators, it also exposes where efforts fall short, due to lack of commitment, strategy, resources, and/or legal frameworks to support cooperation. These factors have contributed to backsliding on progress in nearly half of the cities CRPE studied.
“Both districts and charter schools fail to collaborate at their own peril,” said Lake. “Charter schools will not continue to grow without access to the funding or facilities districts control. Districts will not be able to use charter schools’ flexibilities to their advantage and stabilize enrollment losses without substantive partnerships with charter schools. Most importantly, it’s families and students who continue to pay the price when isolated self-interest wins out over providing better service to the community.”
“It is past time for leaders to accelerate this work,” she added, “and this report suggests how that can be done.”
Bridging the District-Charter Divide to Help More Students Succeed is available at crpe.org.