Districts and Charters

Over at Flypaper, Terry Ryan talks about the burgeoning notion of real collaboration between district public schools and public charter schools:

[The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] is pushing the development of district-charter “collaboration compacts” in various cities, which would theoretically lead to real commitments to work together … These efforts … seek far more than just platitudes and goodwill across school sectors. We’re talking about serious partnerships where money, responsibility for the children and shared hopes for their futures are truly embraced jointly.

In general, I think this is great.  For too many years – and in too many jurisdictions – the relationships between charters and districts have been zero-sum.  Moreover, in my opinion, most attempts to bridge the inter-sector divide focus not on mutually beneficial goals, but rather on envy.  Hence the overly simplistic formulation I’ve been kicking around lately: charters have real estate envy, and districts have autonomy envy.

Using the frames above makes sense if either sector is thinking about institutional imperatives (i.e. charter growth and/or district preservation), but objectives with an institutional basis have limits as a strategy for dramatically changing the nature of public education.  My feeling is that any positive-sum relationship between districts and charters must focus on a mutually shared goal, namely increasing the number of high-quality student seats.  I’m open to other goals in which the desired results for both sectors are the same, but I’m struggling to think of one that rivals “increasing high-quality seats” for simplicity and strength of purpose.  Once that goal is established, the sectors can pursue any number of strategies aimed at achieving the goal.  But without the goal, I fear we will see too many “agreements” or “deals” focused on solving institutional challenges, rather than offering better options for children and families.

By the way, I think one of the absolute best strategies to achieve that goal is turnaround.  Districts should more actively pursue “Lead Partner” relationships with high-capacity charters to turn around their failing schools.  Here’s a case where the management expertise at the best charters can be brought to bear on some of a district’s most vexing challenges, while also relieving pressure on the institutional imperatives mentioned above.  The district can have comfort in providing greater site-level autonomy, due to the capacity introduced by the charter.  At the same time, the charter gets access to a facility and a predictable set of new students.  There are roughly 20 billion detail under the surface of that arrangement, but I can tell you from experience that it’s doable.

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