Friday, January 20, 2012

What Is the Future of District/Charter Collaboration?

District/Charter Collaboration: The promise, the peril

In twenty or more major cities, charter schools and districts are laying down arms and coming to the table to figure out how to share resources and responsibility to serve all students equitably. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a multi-year initiative to support the design and implementation of district-charter collaboration compacts. CRPE is helping these and other cities figure out how to reinvent their central office structures so that charter schools can become a normal part of a district's efforts to better meet student needs. But some of these efforts go much deeper than others and the impact on student learning remains to be seen.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the charter-district lines are blurring in these ways? Will charter-district collaborations amount to something that helps students? Or are they just a passing fad to attract the funding and favor of big foundations? Are charters in danger of being co-opted by district interests? Are districts putting themselves in political peril? What will it take to make these partnerships work?

Experts Weigh In


“Oliver Stone to direct film about charter schools…”

Don Shalvey
Deputy Director, States/Districts and Networks, US Program, Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


…now that’s a headline that would attract attention and hype.

I’m certain Oliver Stone, the king of conspiracy movie directors, would find intrigue behind the blurring of the lines between public school districts and charter public schools. Think about it. Stone would assert that District/Charter Compacts are the Trojan Horse for privatizing public education and destroying traditional governance structures.

Or perhaps, in a twist of fate, Stone would portray that school superintendents are luring charters to districts through the promise of facilities, only to pull the rug out from under these naïve and idealistic former TFAers and subject them to agreements that would strip them of their autonomy.

“Pass the popcorn, please, because I can’t leave my seat for the mystery and intrigue!”

But I’m staying in my seat, not because of the intrigue, but to watch the results these Compacts are likely to have in the service of the students.

Over the past year, superintendents and leaders of high-performing charters in 16 cities have signed Compacts to work together. They are attempting to close the perpetual divide that has existed in most places since charter schools emerged in the early 90s. Common metrics, resource sharing, more transparency, commitments to reduce low-performing seats whether charter or district…these ideas have real possibilities.

Big cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston have signed, as have cities like Denver, Philadelphia, Central Falls (RI) and Spring Branch (TX). Size and location doesn’t seem to matter, but leadership does, and an acknowledgement that all the youth in a city are the responsibility of that city’s educators and elected officials. As mayors Emanuel, Nutter, and Menino all stated, “I need high-performing schools and whether they be charter or district doesn’t matter.”

Compacts create the art of possibility. Not in every Compact city, however. These agreements take time, energy, and commitment, and that won’t happen everywhere. But it is likely to happen in many of the current 16, and in probably more than a handful more.

They will help students because teachers, principals, instructional leaders, and superintendents want the best for every youngster; and in places like Central Falls, the teachers (regardless of which public school they teach in) value learning from one another. At the expense of cranking out the movie time machine, maybe today’s version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” will feature a charter school leader showing up at the superintendent’s house.

I believe that in 15 years we’ll still be working on achievement, but most educators won’t remember when charters and school districts fought so hard to stay apart from each other.

What will it take for these Compacts to make a difference for students, families, and communities? District leadership must embrace charters, and charters must offer lessons learned regarding student success in ways that are replicable. Charters must consider themselves learners as well. Mayors and teacher leaders must assist. Quality is essential, as is the desire to be measured by common metrics in a setting of smart politics.

These conditions are present in Denver, where the district recognized the value of high-quality charters, and has forged a Compact that offers buildings, common enrollment practices, a commitment to serve all students, and a common achievement metric. Denver Public School’s “School Performance Framework” includes all public schools.

The ecology is still fragile, as it is in other emerging compact cities, and a shift of leadership could undo much, but continued momentum of making a difference together could change the equation for youth in these communities. Now that’s a movie script I’d like to see play in theaters throughout the country.


Some District-Charter Compacts show great promise

Jim Blew
Leads the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Education Reform grant-making efforts


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation deserves substantial credit for the growing interest of traditional school districts to work with public charter schools on behalf of all children in their communities. Through its District-Charter Collaboration Compacts, BMGF has encouraged the two sectors to address tension points frankly and productively. Of course, district-charter collaboration has co-existed with district-charter competition since the very first charter school, but these formal Gates Compacts promise to accelerate the positive impact of the charter school movement.

The Compacts will benefit children most if they help establish a level playing field, where all schools are held accountable for performance, where all parents have the power to choose among quality schools for their children, and where autonomous charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding and facilities as traditional public schools. Such policies would infuse a true competitive dynamic into the broader education system, inspiring continuous improvements at all schools.

Only a handful of districts have been willing to discuss tangible district-charter collaboration, and even those often fall short on the principles of parental choice, school autonomy, and comparable funding. Perhaps the worst offender is the Los Angeles Unified School District. In spite of its Gates Compact, the Los Angeles School Board recently eliminated a policy that allowed high-performing charter schools to compete to manage chronically failing or new campuses. The school board proclaimed it wanted children served by the best available provider—unless that provider is a charter school. They can’t pretend that’s good for kids and they certainly can’t pretend that’s collaboration.

In spite of the disappointing examples, some of the District-Charter Compacts show great promise. In Chicago, for example, education leaders have combed through district budgets and facilities agreements to ensure that students who attend charter schools will have equal access to resources. Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools have given their school leaders new power and autonomy so they can improve their schools and compete more effectively with a growing charter school sector. It’s a formula that’s good for kids.

Just five years ago, many charter school activists were genuinely concerned that the traditional system would snuff out their movement. Today, the quality charter movement is growing rapidly and feels almost permanent, even though most districts continue to fight competition from charters with every tool available. For now, true district-charter collaboration is the exception, but it’s an exception that reformers should embrace. We need to support the handful of visionary district leaders who understand that working with charters can help all students. If those ranks grow, such leaders can help transform American education for the better.


Coming full circle

Mike Feinberg
Co-Founder, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Foundation, and Superintendent, KIPP Houston


The push around the country for public charter schools and traditional districts to work together is an exciting development in our collective efforts to build truly effective public systems of schools for all our children. It also means that, in some cities, charters and districts are coming full circle. Take KIPP's history, for example. KIPP started within the Houston public school system as a program and then as an in-district charter school. When there was no more room to house us, we became a state charter school, and we have been operating outside of the traditional school system for the past decade. Now, first with Galveston ISD and soon with Spring Branch ISD, KIPP has returned to the traditional school system by starting in-district charter schools.

In some cities, the relationship between charter schools and the traditional school district is analogous to cats and dogs, and that's not surprising; competition is a new concept in public education, as we haven't reformed our delivery system for educating our children in over a century and have relied on a government monopoly to deliver the educational services to our communities. Ultimately though, the cats and dogs need to learn to co-exist for a purpose larger than either of them. If we start from the perspective that all of our efforts are aimed at helping all of the children have a great education and a great life, then traditional districts and charters are two members of the local public system of schools that can achieve this mission for their children more effectively in harmony than in battle. Many other industries have proven it is possible for competitors to work together to help their industry flourish, and there is no reason why the different members of the public education community cannot do the same.


No time…for fussing and fighting

Bryan Hassel
Co-Director, Public Impact


“Life is very short, and there's no time…for fussing and fighting, my friend.” – McCartney and Lennon, “We Can Work It Out.”

Anybody want to fuss or fight over that sentiment? Of course not. Children’s lives are too short for districts and charters to fight over funding, facilities, and all the rest. I’m with Paul and John. Actually, I’m half with them. Let’s not fuss and fight. But, collaboration is not the only alternative to fighting. The other is for each side to focus relentlessly on making their own services as excellent as possible, and to win more “customers” in the process. If you look at the great sweep of history, much of the innovation and improvement we’ve seen in society springs from that kind of focus. If the incentives are right (a big if, to be sure), each side single-mindedly pursuing its own interests is the most likely path to excellence.

Collaboration makes sense, however, when it solves some problem that districts and charters likely can’t solve on their own by racing for market share. One example is facilities. In a tough fiscal environment—or any fiscal environment really—it makes little sense for charter school leaders to divert huge amounts of time and resources into capital projects, which then empty out perfectly good district buildings. Of course, Paul and John were right when it comes to working out facilities deals. Another one is special education, where an each-school-for-itself approach is bound to lead to poor quality schooling for students who are already getting the bad end of the deal in public education. Let’s hear it for Paul and John on that one too.

What’s important is for charter and district leaders alike to keep a very clear head about all of this. Collaboration isn’t an end in itself. It shouldn’t be thought of as compromising the quest for excellence and market share. In fact, whichever “side” of this you are on, don’t collaborate unless you think doing so will help you in that quest. If that’s everyone’s compass, we’re much more likely to see collaboration that furthers school quality. If it isn’t, collaboration will be all handshakes, photo opps, and meetings. We’ve got plenty of those already!


What will we find in spring?

Neerav Kingsland
Chief Strategy Officer, New Schools for New Orleans


First, hats off to charters, districts, Gates, and all the work Paul Hill’s crew has done over the years—thawing frozen relationships is a win. Next question: with the winter over, what comes in spring? I see two potential futures:

In this scenario, districts and charters play nice but retain opposing world views. Charters grow to 10-20% market share in cities but don’t really attempt to serve every kid. Districts offer some free facilities but still maintain a belief that they are the best entity to operate most schools. Charters and districts collaborate, but the structure of our education system remains the same.

The Relinquishment Revolution
In this scenario, districts prudently relinquish school operation over to the non-governmental sector over the next two decades—perhaps chartering 5% of their systems each year. Districts transform into high-quality regulators, ensuring equity and accountability in a decentralized system. Charters step up and serve every child. Great charters expand. Failing charters close. Slowly but surely, we increase performance by empowering our best educators and giving families choices.

Here’s what’s interesting: I don’t think either charters or districts are fully thinking beyond Détente. Friends of mine in charters, districts, and philanthropy remain skeptical that 100% charter districts can work. In this sense, if we fail to launch “The Relinquishment Revolution” (which I support), it will not be because of a failure to collaborate. Rather, it will be because of a failure of vision.

So while I’m thrilled about the compacts of 2012, I’ll put my long-term hopes on the compacts of 2017. Perhaps that round will broker agreements whereby districts and charters agree to work together to return power back to educators and families. If you want a preview of what this might look like, I’d check out the New Orleans Compact of 2012.

To borrow from William Gibson, the revolution is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.


Distrust, self-interest, and cultural conflict: Lessons from Ohio

Terry Ryan
Vice President for Ohio Programs and Policy, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Research Fellow, Stanford's Hoover Institution


In working for the last decade to try and get charters and school districts to work together, we have learned some painful lessons in Ohio. I’m not sure how much these translate across state lines, but here are three examples:

  1. Trust between charter people and district people is always tenuous. Charters are direct competitors and as such school districts invariably see them as a threat to their control, their interests, and ultimately their resources. Competition may breed respect and even admiration, but it doesn't breed trust. Long-lasting relationships—where each side is willing to give something up to help the other or the whole—demand trust, and I would argue that as long as charters and districts compete for the same children and the same funds they will never be able to actually trust each other. I’m not sure this is a bad thing if it pushes each to get better, but it does limit what one can or should reasonably expect from district/charter collaboration.
  2. Charter people and district people live in largely different operating cultures. By their very nature, charter people are risk-takers while district people are risk-adverse. The charter culture is amazingly self-critical and self-examining. In fact, the debates within the charter sector around issues of quality and accountability are as intense and heated as the debates between charter people and district people on such issues. District people are more content and verge on the hyper-defensive when criticized.
  3. Both charter and district people looks to state government to protect them from the other. Despite a lot of talk about working together, sharing best practices, etc., at the end of the day, when it comes time to lobbying, each sector lobbies for what is in their own narrow self-interest and they do this without any sense of irony. Self-interest rules the day, and as funding gets tighter and the competition increases, this focus only intensifies.


Strategic collaboration yields great options for all students

Tom Vander Ark
Author & Founder, Getting Smart


School district and charter collaboration is obviously a good idea. When collaboration leads to strategic coordination, it has the potential to create a single portfolio of quality educational options. Jim Shelton and I wrote about this in a 2004 paper—Good Urban Schools: A Portfolio Approach—that still holds up pretty well. 

There are four primary areas of tactical collaboration: facilities, communication and enrollment management, transportation, and special education and other support services. Unfortunately, in most cities there is little coordination in any of these areas. New York City is probably the best example of tactical collaboration and it (and strong accountability and a subway) result in good options for every family. 

There are three areas of potential strategic collaboration:

1. Authorizing. Districts (and states) should use authorizing and contracting strategies as the basis for service delivery and accountability. In other words, every school and service provider should operate under a performance contract—no tenure for schools (see Performance Contracting: Model for Governance, Provisioning & Accountability).

2. Options. Community boards shouldn’t operate schools, they should ask, “What kinds of schools do our kids need?” And “How do we best leverage our community assets and meet specific challenges?” The authorizing process should create a system of managed choice that is intentional about what kinds of schools go where. 

For example, to the extent possible, every secondary student should have access to a college prep school, an accelerated pathway (e.g., Early College), a supportive individualized school, and relevant tech-prep pathways. 

3. Online. Choice to the course with portable funding is a whole new way to think about options. It should make it easier to get a good education close to home when secondary students can mix and match. Every student in American should have access to every AP course, to dual enrollment options, to lots of foreign languages. Students should be able to take more than what is currently considered a full load (they’ll graduate early, it won’t cost much more).

Creative blends (what Innosight would call Flex) that leverage local resources and employers are the new frontier for district and charter collaboration.


If collaboration is the end, we will not succeed

Jeanne Allen
Founder and President, The Center for Education Reform (CER)


On the surface, it may seem that collaborations between school districts and charter schools can deliver new possibilities to achieving the goal of high achievement for all students.

The dreams of shared facilities, resources, and responsibilities present a utopian view of education. But to get along, you need to go along. And therein lies the problem.

Competition is critical—real collaboration doesn't occur without it.

Charter schools sparked a revolution among traditional public schools. We've seen districts buck the status quo—or at least recognize the need for change—to introduce ideas commonplace among charter schools, like extended school days, longer school years, college partnerships, and the like. Without this competition, these changes would have occurred much slower, if at all.

If not for the competitive nature this dichotomy created, the discussion of collaboration wouldn't exist in the first place. Dulling the competitive edge in favor of collaboration will sever long-term goals in exchange for short-term benefits.

In Virginia, the approval of charter schools lives and dies with the local school district, which also explains why only four charter schools are operating in the Old Dominion state. The threat of competition impedes any hope for collaboration. And while we do see some districts embrace charter schools, the majority fears them.

There are some exceptions. In educationally challenged Philadelphia, for example, there have been real and productive efforts by the district to learn from and work with charter school leaders. The Renaissance schools effort, which assigned failing public schools to some charter providers, has seen a renewed understanding about the conditions necessary to turn around failing schools — accountability that begins with the leader, staff that are more autonomous, parents that have more say in where their kids go to school, performance contracts. Such tenets that are borne of the charter movement and require freedom from burdensome labor contracts are critical if districts are to be partners in reform.

And while educators may eschew the notion of competition, it is the threat presented from loss of funds, takeover, or closure that provides an incentive to change. Thus meaningful collaboration requires a state that has a strong charter law, whose parents have power to vote with their feet, and where school officials have legal authority to make changes without fear or retribution from traditional power structures.

Without such conditions, charters that do begin to work more collaboratively with school districts may find themselves losing their autonomy in exchange for the perceived benefits of collaboration (more facilities, administrative support, money, acceptance). For many charter schools, it would be easy to see their dependence on the district grow. The larger networks of charter schools would be less susceptible, but over time, situations will arise where the charters will be forced to fall into line—to get along by going along.

But, to truly serve our children, the schools we create must do whatever it takes—and be provided maximum flexibility to do so—to make gains and hold us all accountable, first. If collaboration is a means that ends in that, we should pursue it. But if collaboration is the end, we will not succeed.


Success will require changes in attitude and action

Richard Lee Colvin
Executive Director, Education Sector


Today, we think of collaboration as intrinsically positive. On the job, we expect individuals to collaborate with their colleagues on projects, and successful organizations work with partners around the country and the world, leveraging their strengths to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

It would seem to make immediate sense for charters and school districts to work together to serve their students. They purchase a similar range of products and services, such as instructional materials and data management, and would benefit from economies of scale. Existing school buildings in many places are underutilized and charter schools could offset the cost of maintaining empty space. Charter schools with a particular focus—for example, music and arts, science and math, or dropout recovery—could specialize in serving students with particular needs.

But, as the new 2011 report on charter schools from the Center on Reinventing Public Education makes clear, there are significant risks as well. Charter schools that have worked hard to create an achievement-oriented culture could find themselves forced to admit students and families not committed to success and hard work. Districts could invite a political backlash from the local teachers union and others who see charter schools as usurpers of public resources. Both could expend an enormous amount of time and effort and see it wiped away by a change in leadership on either side.
But, as Robin Lake, co-editor of the report, notes, "the important question…is not whether collaboration is good for the charter school movement or good for districts. Instead, the question is whether these partnerships will benefit students by providing them with greater access to high-quality schools and an equitable allocation of resources."

Achieving that goal will require fundamental changes in attitude as well as practice. As noted in the report, districts are, "by design, built to centralize control, mitigate risk, and avoid uncertainty." To collaborate effectively with charter schools, districts will have to learn to see themselves primarily as service organizations rather than compliance mechanisms. That may well require bringing in new personnel who have not been professionally acculturated in the public schools. It also will require strong district leaders who are committed to serving students and demanding accountability for results, regardless of the kind of school.

Charters, for their part, must commit themselves to financial transparency, if they are asking to receive additional resources to serve their students. Money saved through increased efficiency should not be used to enrich charter school leaders or operators. Charters also must take care that they don't become so dependent on additional funds from public sources that they are willing to give up what sets them apart. Collaboration should be between entities that bring different strengths to the table. It should not be designed to make all schools the same.


A threat to "greenfield"?

Frederick M. Hess
Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute


When it comes to schooling, I think collaboration can sometimes be a dangerous thing. (I know this marks me as a crazy man, but so be it). There are obviously big potential benefits to the compact model—sharing good ideas, helping charters access much-needed facilities and services, promoting even-handed accountability, forging healthy working relationships, and sending the valuable signal that these are all public schools—but I'll let others address those here.

My biggest concern with educational collaboration is the fascination with sharing practices and routines that "work." For those with a lot of faith in "best practices," or who think there's a lot of transferable magic in the routines of a high-performing charter, collaboration is appealing.  

But practices that work well for one school or system frequently don't seem to "scale" when adopted by another school or system. Why? It's not the practices in isolation, but the fact that they depend upon the talent and commitment of leaders and staff, and the presence of complementary work rules, resources, and culture. Unfortunately, those things don't necessarily translate with the practices, meaning that the "best practices" then disappoint when scaled (frequently delegitimizing themselves in the process).   

As I see it, the real power of charter schooling is that it presents "greenfield," in which new cultures and models can be established on fresh turf, rather than painfully injected into resistant, calcified systems. The closer charters start to work with existing districts, the more they seem bound to import norms, expectations, and routines from those systems.  

Tying charters more closely to districts when it comes to facilities, special education, and accountability offers some benefits, and good public relations, but reduces the degrees of freedom that next-gen problem-solvers will enjoy in those locales. (For instance, the compact-friendly requirement that every charter commit itself to serving every single potential student, regardless of need, imports a premise that has made it difficult for school systems to serve anyone especially well. It then raises the level of difficulty, by insisting that each charter school commit to doing only what entire school systems had previously promised to do.)

To my mind, the promise of charter schooling has only been scratched by the pioneering wave of high-performing charters that hire talented educators, use data, set demanding expectations, and work really hard. Charter success 2.0 depends on providing a space for problem-solvers to increasingly rethink long-held assumptions about the shape of teaching and schooling. And my concern, for all the obvious potential of the compacts, is that linking charters more closely to entrenched systems threatens to make that process less likely.


Guard independence but pursue complementary interests

Paul Hill
Director, Center on Reinventing Public Education, Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell


It is very important that charter and district leaders acknowledge their many complementary interests. The core mission of both is to serve the children in their communities. They should compete, but not by interfering with one another's schools. That means sharing facilities whenever possible and joining in fair admissions and student transfer processes. Both have a lot to gain if they collaborate on building a financing and delivery system for special education, one that protects all children but doesn't impose ruinous financial burdens on any one school. All the families that both serve will make better choices if they can compare schools on common metrics, including student outcomes and student attrition.

Portfolio districts that embrace charters as a normal mechanism for providing good schools will want to create a level playing field so charters can succeed, yet be demanding authorizers. This is good for education even if blurs the difference between the "district" and "charter" sectors. In cities where the district doesn't embrace the portfolio model, charter leaders will need to guard their independence, but join district leaders in looking for arrangements that improve children's opportunities. 


Negotiate from a position of strength

Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute


The topic of collaboration between districts and charter schools inevitably leads to Cold War imagery. Are we talking about appeasement? Détente? Trust but verify?

Like the ideal of world peace, it’s easy to agree about cooperation—moving from a “battleground” to “common ground,” as one Gates Foundation official put it. But how can we ensure that cooperation doesn’t turn into an excuse to co-opt the charter school movement?

The key, it seems to me, is for charters to come to the negotiating table as equal powers.

To be sure, some enlightened superintendents and school boards will welcome charter school engagement for all the right reasons. But local politics being what they are, let’s not take goodwill as a given. Through a prism of Realpolitik (!), the key to making partnerships work is even strength on either side.

What that implies is that long-lasting charter-district collaborations are only likely to work in locales where charter schools boast serious market share and significant political power. So before charter schools sit down to hammer out a deal, they should:

  1. Get to scale. If districts are losing twenty or thirty percent of their students (and funding) to charters, that’s enough to change political dynamics. Much less than that, and districts (and unions) can mostly look the other way.
  2. Build a political base. This is largely connected to my first point; charter school parents, if organized, can be a powerful voting bloc. But other actions are key, too. The first is to put well-connected people on charter school boards—people willing to go to bat for the movement. And the second is to make sure that local charter schools—or at least some of them—serve the children of the affluent. These parents are particularly effective at playing political hardball.
  3. Focus on quality. Bad charter schools have little to offer school districts. They don’t have innovations to share, best practices to teach, or techniques to replicate. Great charter schools, however, can be important resources. By showing what’s possible, they can put pressure on unions to remove barriers that keep district schools from following suit. They can share hard-earned lessons. And in some states, at least, they can lend their high test scores to districts’ performance metrics. (Ohio law allows for this, for example.)

Until these three conditions are met, charter schools will always play David to the district Goliath. Collaboration is great, but only when the local charter school movement is ready for it.


To change systems, scale charters

Nelson Smith
Consultant, former CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools


New York Times columnist Joe Nocera recently wrote about a burgeoning partnership between The Learning Community charter school and its surrounding district in Central Falls, R.I. You’d have to be a curmudgeon not to applaud what’s going on there: Educators who formerly worked in Providence start a cool little charter school featuring a reading program they developed. Then the local district’s scrappy new superintendent visits, gets the spirit, and throws open the door to collaboration. Kudos all around!

Now, I must admit that I’m slightly allergic to that word “collaboration.” Too often it’s an end in itself, and produces a lot of meetings but ill-defined outcomes. To work, it needs leadership and focus. Robin Lake identifies the central question in her concluding essay: “whether these partnerships will benefit students by providing them with greater access to high-quality schools and an equitable allocation of resources.”  

So bravo to Central Falls superintendent Frances Gallo, The Learning Community, and all such partners who join hands to share good classroom practices. But let’s remember that the most potentially transformative charter innovations are in governance, finance, personnel policies, and accountability. These create conditions for classroom innovation to happen system-wide, and are much harder for districts to adapt than specific teaching methods. A recent issue brief from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed how effective charter principals use their autonomy to create outside-the-box solutions. It’s hard for such practices to take root in districts that require school leaders and teachers to walk in lockstep.

So it’s unsettling that columnist Nocera borrows a faulty assumption from Steven Brill’s book Class Warfare: Since “you couldn’t possibly scale [charters] to encompass 50 million public school students,” their innovations will have to spread virally, or even serendipitously, as in the Central Falls example.

This is a straw man. Maybe they won’t serve 50 million kids, but charters can and are scaling. If 80% of the school population in New Orleans, 40% in DC, more than 30% in another four cities, and more than 20% in another eighteen isn’t scale, then what is? Charter schools are already a major part of the public education delivery system in a startling number of big cities.

More to the point, some level of scale has to happen before most districts get interested in talking. As Houston, Los Angeles, and New York demonstrate, collaboration isn’t a substitute for scale; it’s a consequence. Ninety percent of state charter laws say that one purpose of charter schools is to improve education for all. That’s a lot more likely to happen when charters are a substantial, thriving, and high-performing sector, rather than a few small schools at the margin. 


Time to lay down arms

John I. Wilson
Senior Fellow, Pearson Foundation, Former Executive Director, National Education Association


There is an old saying, "...from your lips to God's ears." That is the message that came to my mind when I read the latest annual report on charter schools, "Hopes, Fears, & Reality," and specifically, the information on charter/district collaboration. I have always wondered why charter schools and local school districts failed to talk to each other because charter schools were supposed to be the incubators of new ideas to improve student achievement, ideas that could help all schools. It makes sense that a closer relationship should exist between charters and districts.

I believe that the unions would embrace this collaboration. The NEA and AFT have always supported charter schools through their policies. That is not to say that all their members or affiliates honor that support. Both unions have many members who teach and work in charter schools as well as many teachers who move between employment in the school district and the local charter schools. The biggest challenge for the unions will be to empower local schools to waive contract provisions when they do not serve the students and staff at that local school site.

Charter schools work best when they are empowered to make decisions that fit their student population without bureaucratic interference. School districts work best for scale and cost-efficiency, especially in support services and serving exceptional students with expensive needs. Charter schools are more adept at raising outside funds to supplement governmental allotments. School districts can use volume to drive down cost per student in transportation, professional development, or technology.

Taxpayers have invested in these two ways of educating our students. They deserve to have the grown-ups collaborating and making decisions that embrace the best method of educating all students and of using funds in the most efficient and effective way. It is time to lay down arms, acknowledge that no one way is better than the other, and work toward a united community effort to assure all students get the best education in the best publicly funded schools. Charter/district collaboration is an idea whose time has come.