Charter-District Collaboration: Necessity, Not a Nicety

In an excellent turn of phrase, the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), released a report on collaboration between public charter schools and traditional school districts, making the point that the charter-district wars need to stop and saluting the places where they have. “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schools and the ability of school districts to innovate and adapt will depend on moving beyond siloed thinking and outdated notions of competition and sector turf battles,” says CRPE Director Robin Lake. The CRPE report shows this is far more than wishful thinking. Denver, New Orleans, and Camden, New Jersey have implemented common enrollment systems for district and charter schools. Chicago is looking at doing the same. New Orleans and Washington, D.C., have reduced inequities in discipline practices by collaborating and developing consistent policies. New Orleans has a cost sharing system between charters and the few remaining district schools to serve students with special needs. Chicago, Denver and New Orleans also have a common accountability tool that helps families track school performance. In Boston, district, charter and even Catholic school educators are doing joint teacher training. In Philadelphia, district and charter schools are coordinating the creation of new schools rather than planning separately, which has been a problem in other cities like Detroit, where some communities have too many schools and others not enough. I recently wrote about the issue in U.S. News and World Report, mentioning that the Obama administration had a small grant program encouraging charter-district collaboration and encouraging the Trump administration to revive it. Hopefully, this new CRPE report and the organizations website spelling out district-charter compacts can help advance the policy. CRPE has also started an important conversation around the budgetary impact of charter growth on district schools. Specifically, when students leave district schools for charters, and their per-pupil dollars follow them, the district still has to pay “legacy” costs like pensions and “fixed” costs, like debt service, not to mention heat and electricity in under-enrolled school buildings. This argument prompted Massachusetts voters last fall to reject expansion of charter schools, even though Bay State charters are among the very best in the country. While one study suggests that districts adjust pretty well to enrollment declines due to charter growth, most superintendents—including those who support charters—will tell you that it forces them to make difficult budget decisions. What’s clear from the CRPE report, however, is that if charter schools and district schools are collaborating on where the need is for more educational options and how to best meet that need, those decisions will be easier. Moreover, increased charter-district collaboration could help improve union-management relations. After all, the original idea of charters was not to compete with school districts but to complement them by providing “laboratories of innovation” that could help spur needed reforms in the district. Let’s hope.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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