Serving every student requires a shift in mindset from a portfolio of schools to a portfolio of learning opportunities.
The Charter-District Relationship: Is Generating Goodwill Enough?
With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, there are now 21 cities in which leaders have signed official District-Charter Collaboration Compacts. These leaders represent district superintendents, charter school associations and networks, individual charter school leaders, community groups, and even city mayors and private school leaders (notably Boston, where Catholic parochial schools participate). In some cities, they’ve been working together for more than four years.
CRPE has been studying these cities since the first Compacts were signed, and as we’ve been noting for a while now, these Compact efforts have shown some true dividends. The very act of getting a diverse group of people to sit down and determine common goals can be a transformative moment in the district-charter relationship: participants tell us they realize they aren’t adversaries, but partners, in improving the quality of education in their cities. It is a counter-argument, in a way, to the idea that competition and school choice alone can improve student outcomes. After all, there is no reason to keep good ideas confined to one school or one system.
For all the positive efforts, it’s fair to say that progress is stalled in some areas. In multiple cities, we're concerned by a sense of fatigue among some participants. In some cases, original Compact goals have faded from memory, and steering meetings continue out of a desire to keep up appearances. Fatigue is common in any multi-year project with lofty goals, but it will challenge the sustainability of Compact efforts over the long run. Sustainability will be further challenged by leadership changes, when grant funding ends, or if efforts to move the needle on school quality are unsuccessful. The verdict on school quality is still out, but the difficulties in following through with bold initiatives in many cities are not encouraging. Without a greater sense of accomplishment in some cities, it is doubtful that existing goodwill can be enough on its own to sustain the Compacts.
We believe a refresh and refocus is needed for Compacts to achieve their original goal: improving education for all kids in a city by sharing resources and responsibility across sectors. Now more than ever, cities like Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Detroit, and even a strongly collaborative city like Denver need to find systemic solutions, not Band-Aids, for solving problems and capturing opportunities that arise when charter schools become a significant portion of a city’s public school landscape. Current Compact cities should revisit and revise original and now dusty agreements, updating them with lessons learned and to match current challenges. Cities that have just begun to collaborate—like Miami, Florida and Grand Prairie, Texas—should craft their own Compacts and commit to strengthening schools across sectors. And as the number of charter schools rises in a city, district-charter collaboration committees can wrestle together over thorny policy questions, including:
- Should charter schools “backfill” students mid-year?
- How can students with special needs be served equitably and effectively?
- Who should help parents navigate enrollment and application deadlines?
- Should schools adopt common policies and fairer approaches to student discipline?
- How should local school facilities be allocated fairly? Who is responsible for maintenance or renovations?
These and many more critical questions need to be resolved smartly, efficiently, and with some urgency by city leaders looking to provide a robust system of schools and make school choice work for all families. The solutions need not look the same in every town; leaders should tap into expertise and innovation wherever they reside. And to create full buy-in, the solutions cannot be imposed upon the district or the charter sector. Re-tooled Compacts could play an essential role by creating a shared governance structure that brings district and charter leaders together to define goals and set clear responsibilities. This structure could then be used to develop formalized agreements and ensure that plans are being well implemented.
With the involvement of community leaders, including mayors, Compacts could go even further and establish formal coordination with city agencies or community organizations. They could specify, for example, that citywide transportation systems be utilized to get kids to school—whether district or charter—thereby increasing access for all and reducing a formidable barrier to choice. They could ensure access to afterschool programs or a city’s library and recreation services. Through these kinds of provisions, Compacts could help bring a citywide focus to education.
We remain, as do many existing participants, convinced that the basic idea of district-charter collaboration is sound. Compacts can be useful in facilitating the goodwill between sectors that helps share best practices and resources, the focus of many existing collaborative activities. But as school choice grows up, Compacts could be essential for much more—ensuring that a city’s students don’t get left behind. In the next generation of these agreements, we hope city leaders strive to get past just generating goodwill. Compacts should set the stage for long-lasting, meaningful collaborations that make cities, districts, charter schools, and community organizations true partners in providing the best education to all kids.
Give students flexibility, supports to explore different academic and career pathways without closing the door on other opportunities.
Despite periodic stalemates, a local portfolio strategy will very likely endure, spread, and continue to evolve.