What Healthy Competition Among Schools Really Takes

There’s a fight brewing in my backyard. War has broken out over whether a highly regarded yet controversial charter network should  open a new campus on the Southwest Side of Chicago. Similar squabbles have the same sides with different names squaring off all over the country. On the one hand, you have charter operators with successful track records looking to bring quality options to more students in need. They are often backed up by parents who describe the huge difference those schools made in the lives of their children. Here on the Southwest Side, about 1,500 families are already sending their kids on two-hour daily commutes to attend the network’s campuses in other parts of town. On the other hand, you have community and neighborhood school leaders legitimately concerned that adding more charters means fewer resources for the schools already working to serve local families. In a healthy competition, all schools strive to offer outstanding learning experiences, whether through dual-immersion language study, STEM emphasis, Montessori or some other special hook. This kind of competition goes beyond what should be a given for every child in every school—smart, caring teachers, strong curriculum and solid mastery of the three R’s for every student. But right now, that’s not what we have. We have a hodgepodge of quality in our public schools—both district and charter operated. Some schools are great, some are meh and some are in serious trouble. When districts aren’t managing well, a charter’s independence can keep it out of trouble. When a charter isn’t working, strong district oversight can push for change or—as a last resort—shut it down. Bringing all schools to the same starting line is a daunting challenge. To get there, we need more leaders in districts and charters who know when to wield accountability and how to provide support and training to take struggling schools to new heights of achievement. We can’t just close our way out of this problem. And we can’t ignore anyone—a district leader or a charter operator—with a track record of success and specific practices to share. At the end of the day, the nearest public school, no matter who runs it, has to be good enough to get the job of learning done. That’s why schools have to compete more like firefighters than like fast-food restaurants.  Firefighters can and do compete with each other, but they do it to demonstrate their fitness and show how demanding their job really is. They aren’t looking to put each other out of business. They’re fighting on the same side. Public schools—whether charter or district run—should be fighting on the same side, too. Fighting for the young people they serve. Right now in Chicago, all the energy expended on arguing over whether to open a new charter or not could be better focused by fighting on the same side for  equitable, sufficient state funding for all public schools. We must secure adequate resources—both financial and human—to ensure a friendly competition, not a shark tank. States need to  get serious about adequate, equitable funding for all public schools, regardless of governance type. That’s a tall order. Here in Illinois—worst among the 50 states for equitable funding—the conversation is starting again, as it is in  Michigan and  Washington. But if state leaders have the courage to make real change, it could cool down the overheated, unnecessary conflicts between charter and neighborhood schools.  
Maureen Kelleher is a Chicago charter school parent and veteran education writer. Her work has appeared in Education Week and Catalyst Chicago.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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