Tuesday, March 7, 2017

How State Education Philosophy Informs Local District-Charter Cooperation Efforts

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.

The state pushes sector independence and competition in several ways. First, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools (the Board) oversees more than 500 charter schools and is by far the dominant authorizer in the state, and notably the nation’s largest independent state authorizer. As such, it is siloed from other state public education agencies. Its eleven-member board includes the state superintendent, but communication between that office and the Board is formal and limited. State leadership in charge of district work does not have a simple and easy communication channel by which to problem-solve with the leadership charged with the charter work, and vice versa.

The state philosophy is reflected at the local level where there is little or no coordination or relationship-building between charters and districts. When approving a charter application, for example, the Board does not take into consideration how a new charter school might complement or fill the gap of existing public school options in the area.

Charter schools in Arizona, like elsewhere, struggle with various systems-level issues, such as transportation, access to facilities, and equitable financing. Yet rarely do charters work with districts to try to solve these problems. To be sure, a few fits and bursts at cross-sector cooperation have arisen over the years. More than two decades ago, the state pursued charter school dissemination grants (US Department of Education grants that fund the dissemination of best practices from charter schools to school districts). Arizona also considered the use of charters in cases where the state might need to take over a district. The state even tried to create a charter “buyer’s club” that would, in part, involve districts to leverage purchasing power for the charters. These efforts were exceptional and appear to have long faded.

The sectors, reflecting Arizona’s competition-first philosophy, are resolved to go their own way, without cooperation.

Compare Arizona with Massachusetts, nearly diametric opposites in their current education philosophy. Massachusetts law embraces the idea of district-charter cooperation. It requires charter schools to disseminate their best practices, and while the sector has struggled to comply with that mandate, the state has received multiple federal dissemination grants to drive the effort. To ensure productive cooperation under the grants, the charter schools must show that they have a strong relationship with their district counterparts. The school-level workforce has benefited from the efforts; the state held a dissemination fair focused on the challenges in schools, regardless of type. School-to-school problem-solving on costs, discipline, special needs, and more was well received in both charter and traditional schooling environments. On a more administrative level, the state had also held periodic convenings of charter and district leadership to form a shared vision of public education and to problem-solve around shared goals.

Massachusetts’ cooperation philosophy extends beyond dissemination as it informs local problem-solving. Massachusetts has seen the formation of two strong, local district-charter compacts, and innovative cross-sector partnerships in the turnaround efforts with Lawrence Public Schools, as well as with the newly formed Springfield Empowerment Zone.

Massachusetts’ philosophy is further enhanced by its state structure. The Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign is the state’s sole charter authorizer and as such can implement its philosophy with fidelity. While the state authorizer power is like that of Arizona, there is a significant departure in state structure: Massachusetts’ authorizing power is housed within its Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which makes conversations between sectors at the state level easier to come by. (The value of having an independent state authorizer, which we see, need not come at the cost of encouraging shared vision and problem-solving among state actors.)

However, while Massachusetts fosters cross-sector cooperation, it has capped the growth of charter schools. Opportunities to drive innovation in the state are therefore limited to what charters are able to share with district schools.

Massachusetts and Arizona exemplify how states diverge in their philosophy of public education and how this matters on a local level. Notably, each is missing an important piece of the other’s pie. Arizona misses opportunities around cooperation while Massachusetts misses opportunities around expansion. Each state could benefit from part of the other’s philosophy—all to the benefit of local innovation.