Negotiate From a Position of Strength

Yesterday, to go along with the release of its annual report on the state of American charter schools, the Center for Reinventing Public Education asked several experts to answer a tricky question: What is the future of district/charter collaboration? Here’s my take:

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

– Michael Petrilli

This post was originally published on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper Blog

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