During the pandemic, school districts must deal with uncertainty, not ignore it or take shots in the dark.
District-Charter Texas Two-Step
You may have caught John Merrow’s PBS show featuring a Texas school district’s interesting partnership with KIPP and YES Prep! charter schools. Today in Education Next, Richard Whitmire highlights the same district and other district-charter "compacts."
Spring Branch Independent School District (SBISD) is a large semi-suburban school district in Houston. About two years ago, the district decided it was crazy to fight or ignore the rise of charter schools in the area. Instead, Spring Branch’s superintendent, Duncan Klussmann, invited leaders from the two highest-performing CMOs in the area to co-locate in district buildings to infuse a culture of high expectations into the district schools. The charter operators jumped at the chance and not just because the deal gave them access to a facility. They believed their schools would benefit from the partnership as well. Teachers in the partnership buildings observe and mentor each other and the principals collaborate. Hoping to have more than a school-level impact, Klussmann hired one of KIPP’s best Houston principals, Elliott Witney, to consider ways that Spring Branch could rethink its central office supports to change hiring practices, data management, school accountability, and more.
What’s happening at Spring Branch is much more than collaboration, a word that deservedly ended up on Rick Hess’ blog list of vapid education reform words. It is a change strategy that employs charter schools in an attempt to fundamentally restructure and rethink how school districts operate. CRPE has been deeply engaged in this issue for years. We have been tracking the rollout across more than 20 cities with similar compacts, assessing evidence of progress and supporting implementation.
Many of my friends in the charter world are dismissive of partnerships like Spring Branch. When I posted news of a partnership in St. Louis, where a KIPP school will receive a district building and in return agree to share credit for KIPP’s test score, Andy Smarick reacted sharply. Despite the fact that the St. Louis partnership is a voluntary partnership, Andy asserted that it’s lying to the public for a district to take credit for a charter school’s scores. Many charter advocates share Andy’s view and are deeply skeptical of “collaboration.” They see it as the equivalent of consorting with the enemy. This is not an irrational response. It was not uncommon in the early charter years for a school district superintendent to call his buddy in the fire marshal’s office to make sure a new charter school’s building permit was denied. Districts will, given the opportunity, extort public funds from charters in the name of “oversight.”
But the mark of a vibrant, innovative sector is its ability to mature and evolve and take advantage of strategic partnerships. District-charter cooperative agreements have been signed in cities all over the country and while, early on, some of the agreements may have seemed like kumbaya spirit dances, most are much more than that. Arrangements now range from simple deals where districts share funding in exchange for asking that charter schools recruit more students with disabilities, to much deeper arrangements to transform the entire system, like that in Spring Branch. Like them or not, these arrangements will continue for a simple, rational reason: charter schools and school districts sometimes need each other to be more effective and reach more students. This crossing of enemy lines has plenty of precedence in the private sector. Termed “co-opetition” by scholars, businesses have often competed in some arenas and cooperated in others. They do it when it improves their bottom line, not because they want to play nice. The same should be true when it comes to charter-district partnerships.
It’s right to watch these partnerships carefully to make sure the whole is greater than its parts when it comes to student outcomes. But dismissing efforts like those in Spring Branch as a distraction from the real work of expanding the charter sector is a huge mistake. Charter schools will always be seen as an escape route and sideline reform as long as the sector refuses to engage in real, systemic change. Charter schools will never be able to grow without access to district buildings and local levy funds.
All-out battles to protect charters’ right to exist are needed when districts refuse to change. But when charters start protecting their own institutions for their own sake, they are at risk of losing the much more important war.
For many students returning to class in the coming weeks, it will be back to school online.
States are dumping the instructional planning burden during an unprecedented modern pandemic onto teachers’ laps (or laptops).