Necessity, Not Nicety: What We’ve Learned About District-Charter Alliances

In some of the cities known as ground zero for noisy fights about charter schools, quiet partnerships are underway between district and charter leaders. In New York City and Newark, district educators are meeting with their charter school counterparts to share successful teaching strategies. In Chicago, charter and district leaders have worked out ways to use the same performance standards and to share facilities. In Philadelphia, charter schools are actively engaged with the district to turn around low-performing schools in specific neighborhoods. To help the financially strapped district manage debilitating legacy costs, Philadelphia charter schools assume the debt burden of the buildings they occupy and are lobbying the state for a more rational district funding model.

Why is this going on? The superintendents and school boards in these cities do not score points with teachers unions by working directly with charters. Charter schools are usually wary of losing their autonomy or wasting time when they get too close to districts. The reason is simple: the payoff of well-chosen cooperation, though slow and time consuming, is worth the effort. District-charter collaboration is a necessity, not a nicety.

Like it or not, charter schools need districts. To continue to serve more students, charter schools need access to district facilities and locally raised revenues. They need the more guaranteed enrollment that comes from operating neighborhood schools. More than ever, they need to demonstrate to the community that they are not out to destroy or destabilize public education. And if their mission is to reach as many students as possible, they need to find ways to spread their expertise and ideas beyond just the students they can serve directly.

And like it or not, districts need charter schools. To thrive financially and academically, districts need to attract, develop, and retain entrepreneurial and highly effective educators and ideas. They need to find new ways to improve schools that have been struggling for decades. They need to find ways to deal with their heavy debt service burdens, pension costs, and under-enrolled schools.

Most of all, families and students need both sides to get past their defensiveness and mistrust and get to work creating citywide information, funding, enrollment, transportation, and other systems that will improve equity and access to high-quality schools.

Forward-thinking superintendents and charter leaders are coming together every day in dozens of cities, large and small, to forge agreements and build partnerships along these lines. Our new report, Bridging the District-Charter Divide To Help More Students Succeed, chronicles these efforts, the tangible results to date and the critical challenges to moving the work forward.

The most successful partnerships we’ve documented in our research go far beyond informal collaborations, relationship-building, and shared practices. Those that result in real payoffs for families are hard-nosed cooperative arrangements that either address concrete mutual interests or solve clear challenges students and parents face navigating school choice. Cities that exemplify cooperation are resolving inequitable funding, developing cross-sector strategies for special education, creating common accountability standards across school type, co-training leaders, and partnering on other critical endeavors.

This work is hard and requires strong and committed leadership. It needs to be thought of as an ongoing citywide problem-solving endeavor, not a finite project. But as our research shows, the payoff for districts, charter schools, and families in cities as varied as Boston, Denver, and Central Falls, RI, has been real and meaningful. In the coming years, the continued growth of charter schools and the ability of school districts to innovate and adapt will depend on moving beyond siloed thinking and outdated notions of competition and sector turf battles. The future of public school choice and urban education lies in pragmatic and committed partnerships and cooperation whenever they make sense.

—Robin J. Lake

Robin J. Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

This post originally appeared on The Lens.

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