Sarah Yatsko talks with two "boundary spanners" about how work in the district sector differs from work in the charter sector, the common misperceptions each side holds about the other, and the untapped opportunities for collaboration.
It’s common knowledge that school districts and charter schools rarely collaborate. At best, they are like oil and water and at worst, like cats and dogs. This is too bad: districts and charter schools share a deep commitment to educating children well, and they work in the same neighborhoods and serve the same families.
States diverge considerably in their philosophy about the relationship between school districts and charter schools, and the difference seems to matter to local collaboration efforts. Two states—Arizona and Massachusetts—exemplify how state education authority philosophies knowingly or unknowingly influence local action.
Arizona’s charter law embraces market-based competition and eschews cooperation, which is a prescription that makes shared problem-solving between districts and charters unlikely.
Animosity between school districts and charter schools has been the norm since the nation’s first public charter school opened in 1992. In some cities, however, these deeply divided factions are now finding ways to come together to increase equitable access to schools; in a few cities, these partnerships have even helped to improve some of the schools themselves.
Why have these collaborations been attempted in a few dozen cities and not others? And of those attempts, why have some sustained progress while others have petered out?
As collaboration between districts and charter schools ebbs and flows in the now 21 cities that signed Compacts with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, new relationships are forming in Florida. Uniquely, the state department of education itself has decided to spearhead a competitive grant process. They’ve placed a particular focus on drawing charter networks to neighborhoods most in need of new quality school options.
CRPE has produced two new reports on district-charter collaboration.
Tulsa, which operates in a state not widely receptive to charter schools, has set a bold course of collaboration between the district and charter sectors. Following a difficult history that included anti-charter litigation in 2007 by Tulsa Public Schools, TPS and three district-authorized charter schools signed a District-Charter Collaboration Compact in January 2014. Superintendent Keith Ballard, who took the helm of the district in 2008, has been instrumental in articulating the role charters can play alongside district schools to improve student outcomes.
While many charter school leaders across the country grapple with how to best provide and pay for special education, New Orleans recently became the first city in the nation to tackle special education on the fiscal, human capital, and program fronts in the context of a full-choice public education landscape. Over time, it may offer scalable solutions to other cities.
This past September, MPS announced the advent of a second Compact: a one-on-one partnership between the district and Hiawatha Academies. Though this second agreement lacks the robust list of signatories and ambitious tone of the first compact, it demonstrates a simple and targeted strategy of exchanges. MPS offers Hiawatha inclusion in their enrollment process and access to MPS facilities. In return, Hiawatha offers MPS access to their professional development programs and permits the district to absorb Hiawatha’s test scores.
Cleveland is the newest District-Charter Collaboration Compact city. While the collaboration between CMSD and 14 charter partners focuses on similar challenges as other compact cities—low-performing schools, special education services, and facilities use—the city of Cleveland has given the Compact limited time to make meaningful progress. Dire performance statistics coupled with steadily declining enrollment have catalyzed a homegrown and collaborative effort to transform all Cleveland public schools.