To Compete with Charter Schools, Take a Closer Look at the What the Competition is Doing

In my last post, I talked about the first two steps that district leaders need to take to survive and thrive in an era of rapid charter growth: 1. Tune out the education wars; and 2. Shift your attention to parents and their decision making. In this post, I’ll discuss the third step, rethink the conventional wisdom of the traditional and reform sectors in budgeting, programming, and parent engagement. I’ll start with budgeting.

Competitive Budgeting

Two traditional ways that districts respond to declining enrollments are closing schools and increasing class size. Both are promoted as ways to achieve organizational efficiency. In fact, I once worked with a CFO who argued that 400 was the lowest possible school enrollment.

In a typical district, he might be right. Closing a school means you can save money on a principal, a few teachers and maintenance. But in highly competitive environments, the math might not add up when you factor in the competition.

Many charters can successfully operate with enrollments of 200-300, attracting parents who prefer more personalized school environments. District planners tend to lump all small schools together regardless of the reason for their size. Some schools are small and should be closed because parents don’t want their children in them. Others are small because they were designed that way. When faced with charter competition, closing or consolidating small district schools with successful and popular programs can be counterproductive. If parents decide to leave the district, taking their children and their funding with them, the costs can be much higher than the benefits.

Instead of applying the bureaucratic logic of numbers to school closure, districts should figure out how they can operate more personalized schools that are attractive to parents. If they already have these types schools, they should enhance and replicate them.

The same logic holds true for class size reduction. Budget directors don’t like because of its costs. Reformers don’t like it because of its variable impact on student achievement. Yet, class size reduction has always been popular with parents. For parents who prioritize social emotional metrics such as their child’s relationship with the teacher, class size might be the most important part of their school decision. Unfortunately, when district budgets tighten, class sizes in every school are pushed higher. For many parents, the neighborhood charter with smaller class sizes can quickly seem like a better option.

No matter the financial decision, district leaders should look at the competition. If budgets are tight and class size is on the table, they should compare their class sizes to those in nearby charters. The same holds true for any long-term financial decision such as raising salaries or benefits. District decision-makers, including union leaders, must carefully weigh the cost-benefit ratio of any financial commitment against their ability to sustain and enhance locally popular schools and broadly popular and impactful programs.

Competitive Planning

District leaders should also look at the competition when thinking about their programming. Most districts collect initiatives like ships collect barnacles. Every time a new superintendent is hired or board elected, they add another layer on top of the old ones. One day its STEM. The next it’s community schools and personalized learning. These programs get a lot of attention from the press, philanthropists and other districts. But with so much programming, it becomes impossible for teachers and parents to know what’s important or what a district stands for

Many charters are designed around a specific model or program with neighborhood appeal. Their boards function like the boards of non-profits and are largely immune to interest group politics. Unlike districts, they can avoid being battered by a host of influences from advocacy groups to foundations to state and local governments. This allows them to maintain a coherent educational program and image.

To compete, district leaders must focus on the three S’s: simplicity, sustainability and stability. Rather than adding new things, they need to keep it simple and assess whether their programs benefit a significant number of students and are broadly appealing to parents. To sustain these programs, they may need to stop doing other things, even if they are politically popular or externally grant funded.

In addition, districts simply cannot afford to appear politically unstable or financially mismanaged. Two districts that have perfected this type of stability—Garden Grove and Long Beach—have very little charter school growth. Meanwhile, districts in constant turmoil present an image of dysfunction that seeps down the school level. Parents like to know that there are responsible adults in charge who can work together to make logical management and governance decisions. It is no accident that those California systems with histories of low academic performance, unstable leadership and contentious politics have produced the greatest charter growth.

To convey this image, the central office must shift its focus from initiative development to strengthening the most visible elements of organizational stability—school leaders and classroom teachers. Failing schools and districts are characterized by a revolving door of principals and teachers. Even successful schools can suffer irreparable harm from unstable leadership, unfilled teaching positions or long-term teacher absences. Competitive environments can exacerbate these conditions as districts and charters contend for the best talent. In these conditions, district leaders must pay increased attention to often obscure work of human resources departments, focusing disproportionate attention on recruitment and retention of great teachers and principals.

This work will require different types of union contracts and compensation that pay more to teachers in shortage areas like math and science and disproportionally increase salaries for the early career teachers and principals in high need schools who are most likely to leave the profession. It may require less attention to traditional teacher evaluation systems than measures of teacher satisfaction and professional growth. It may also require districts to systematically measure parent and student satisfaction and use that data when making staffing decisions. The three “S’s” aren’t sexy or interesting. They aren’t likely to attract attention from funders, politicians or other districts. But they are fundamental to the 4th S—survival.

Competitive Engagement

None of these efforts will matter, if district leaders don’t focus on the most important issue—respect. Parent engagement has become a popular buzz word. But engagement is typically a one-way street. Even when facing stiff competition, districts tell parents what they want them to do instead of asking what they want. In every part of our lives, we are increasingly being targeted based on our preferences and those of our children. Yet, few district initiatives are designed with parent preferences in mind. Most district programs seem to emerge from a range of external influences from famous education authors to professional conferences.

It’s hard to understand why districts don’t spend more time asking parents how they feel about their schools and teachers and what programs and services they want and need. This isn’t about “choice” or “customer service”. This is about constantly learning from the “end user” and adjusting to their feedback, even if doesn’t align with your views of the “best thing”.

Once again, this raises the question of the proper role of the central office. Given the hyper-localism and targeted programming of most charters, it’s difficult to imagine how a highly-centralized school district can compete in matching programming to local needs. Rather than coming up with new initiatives, it would seem prudent to mimic the localism and variety of the charter competition. This can only come from empowering local school communities to design their schools, giving them charter-like budget and staffing flexibility in hiring and staff reductions and then holding them accountable for performance, parent satisfaction and enrollment.

A New Kind of Leadership

These are not easy changes. Superintendents are expected to be instructional leaders with new ideas; school boards are challenged to satisfy disparate interest groups asking for more programs; and union leaders often advocate for their membership without considering impacts on other stakeholders. In nearly every district with significant charter competition, these leaders must adapt to the new reality and adopt the perspective of competitive co-existence.

This means that district leaders of all types must acknowledge that attacking the existence of charters is counter-productive and offensive to charter school parents. Success won’t come from actively suppressing charters but from unleashing the creative energy inside their school systems. Similarly, charter leaders must acknowledge that districts have a right to actively compete for parents and could, if they do their job well, put them out of business.

This new paradigm doesn’t prevent either party from challenging unfair or inequitable tactics such as excluding children with disabilities or seeking fairness in areas such as funding or facilities. It means agreeing on some basic ground rules in these areas and then finding the types of leaders at all levels who are willing to compete and co-exist.

Competitive co-existence may not be the latest buzz word in the either the traditional or education reform communities. It may not produce campaign donations, funder symposiums or enraged social media commentary. But for district leaders in areas of accelerating charter growth, it’s the only realistic path forward.

— Arun Ramanathan

Arun Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning.

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