District reform and charter reform

Andy has a good post over at Eduwonk discussing the interface between district-based reform and charter-based reform in Washington DC.  Key graf:

And that brings us to Michelle Rhee in D.C.  … Her job is to fix the demonstrably awful schools in D.C. not just to help charters grow.  To the extent there are inequities in the city’s funding formulas that don’t put charters on a level playing field with other public schools, those should be remedied (although D.C. is much better on that score than some other jurisdictions).  But, the charters have enjoyed the pick of teachers in the city for a long time now because they offer better working conditions, better opportunities, etc…Now the city is, yes, competing under Rhee’s leadership.

While some may quibble with the notion of competition (I won’t), I think this is exactly right.  The fact that some charter folks in DC want to cry foul over the contract is demonstrative of just how oddly the ed reform landscape has morphed.  At the risk of simplifying things, for years in DC, education entrepreneurs had no choice but to work in the charter sector.  The district was not a hospitable environment for dramatic reform, and one of the nation’s most growth friendly charter laws allowed the propagation of charters, some of which are absolute models of high-quality schooling, others of which are not.  Justifiably, that charter school community, good and bad schools included, has developed a set of institutional imperatives and policy goals that would facilitate their growth plans and human capital recruitment strategies.  The new DCPS contract messes with that program.

That argument goes both ways, though.  And the policy decisions don’t all have to be zero sum.  Yes, at some level, there is a finite number of teachers who will teach in the DC metropolitan region, and improving outcomes for students in DCPS – which is quite literally the Chancellor’s job – requires recruiting and retaining as many of those teachers as possible.  That said, a competitive district with bold leadership – coupled with a robust charter sector – should drive a higher quality human capital pool across the board.  Unfortunately, per my comment on the morphing of the ed reform landscape, there is a belief that districts cannot change sustainably and that any policy change that improves the competitive capacity of a district subsequently weakens the competitive capacity of charters, ergo bad policy.  I obviously disagree and think we should be pulling every available lever to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, rather than placing all-or-nothing bets on the transformational capacity of a particular school change strategy.

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