Learning From Each Other

By adhering to five guiding principles, some charters and traditional public schools have moved from contentious dealings to collaborative opportunities by VICKI L. PHILLIPS

If you ask a 4th grader, “Tell me about your school,” she’ll tell you about her teachers, her classes, her friends. One thing she won’t tell you about — and won’t care about — is whether her school is run by a charter or by a school district. And that’s as it should be because the ultimate measure of our schools isn’t governance, it’s quality.

The idea behind public charter schools was to develop flexible models of public schools and to incubate innovative ideas that then could be shared with the district’s public schools. Today, almost 20 years since the first public charter school opened its doors in Minnesota, we still do not see consistent, productive collaboration and shared innovation between charter schools and district schools.

The prevailing district-charter dynamic is characterized by mistrust and missed opportunities. In many cases, there’s a zero-sum mindset. Rather than competing to provide the best education opportunities, schools are struggling to control funding, facilities and often innovative ideas.

We need to move away from this adversarial approach where one is either for or against charter schools in a holistic sense, without distinguishing between high-performing and not high-performing charters. If the goal is to provide every student with a great school and great teachers, then districts need to focus on replicating the best school models, regardless of their governance structure.

Vicki PhillipsThe Gates Foundation's Vicki Phillips, a former superintendent, sees great possibilities when charter schools and school districts collaborate.

Formal Compacts
In February 2010, a group of superintendents and charter leaders from 13 cities across the country met in Los Angeles to talk about improving collaboration between charter and district schools. They wanted to look at ways to provide all students in their cities with a portfolio of highly effective education options. They courageously expressed their frustrations with one another and then actively sought a common ground rather than a battleground.

The group approached the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and asked whether we could support individual city efforts to transform the incentive structures that foster unhealthy competition between districts and charter schools. They stood ready to take on the most intractable barriers including facilities, equitable funding and access for all students.

So the foundation supported the development of public agreements, or compacts, in cities where leaders of traditional district schools and public charter schools were willing to make commitments to collaboration, with clear accountability, in the hopes of developing examples for the nation.

Nine cities answered the call and developed compacts: Baltimore, Denver, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, Tenn., New Orleans, New York City and Rochester, N.Y. Collectively, these cities educate more than 2.1 million students — roughly 4 percent of America’s public school students. Over the next several months, we will work with other cities interested in developing district-charter compacts of their own.

Through the compacts, signatories in this first cohort of cities have committed to replicating high-performing models of traditional and charter public schools, while improving or closing down schools that are not serving students well. Each compact directly takes on the persistent challenges and tensions between district and charter schools and identifies specific opportunities for the two groups to leverage each other’s strengths in pursuit of a common mission. Both sides agree to stand behind quality, regardless of governance models.

Each compact is signed by the district superintendent and multiple charter school leaders, with support from other partners in the city, such as the mayor, teachers’ unions, school board members, and stakeholders such as the business community and advocacy organizations.

Working Principles
For superintendents, the compacts are an opportunity to step outside governance debates and think about how to best meet the needs of all students through a portfolio of schools that encompass both traditional district schools and public charter schools. The compacts also open up new possibilities for dealing with budget challenges by making more strategic use of what’s already working.

Every compact is designed to meet the unique needs of a given city, but all compacts must adhere to five principles.

PRINCIPLE NO. 1: STUDENTS BELONG TO ALL OF US. First, district superintendents and public charter school leaders agree they have a collective obligation to ensure all students graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, work and life.

In disagreements between charter and traditional schools, we often hear leaders say charters are taking away “their students.” We need to move away from this unhelpful frame that pits students from different kinds of public schools against each other. Children don’t belong to a particular traditional district school or charter school — everybody has a responsibility to provide all children with a great public education.

This approach serves as a constant reminder that charter schools are a tool in the toolbox to ensure all students receive the quality education they deserve. It frees up school districts to develop arrangements that benefit students in both charter and district schools.

For example, in the New Orleans compact, district and charter leaders agreed to secure a third-party provider to build interim assessments aligned to the common core state standards, which can be purchased by all schools. This saves district resources and is an opportunity for district and charter teachers to learn together, through common student work, which instructional strategies are most effective.

In New York City, district and charter leaders committed to work together to pressure teacher preparation institutions to ensure graduates are meeting the needs of both district and charter schools. They also collaborated with Hunter College to found and develop curricula for Teacher U, a practice-based teacher preparation program for future district and charter teachers. The program aspires to have 50 percent of the teachers graduating from the program teaching in district schools.

PRINCIPLE NO. 2: CHARTER SCHOOLS MUST SUPPORT THE SUCCESS OF DISTRICT SCHOOLS. The second principle is that charter leaders must agree to fulfill their schools’ role as laboratories of innovation and support the success of district schools. Charters cannot be islands of excellence — or islands at all. They must be true partners in citywide efforts to provide an excellent education for all students.

This means charter schools in compact cities must commit to serving all types of students, and they must do a better job of recruiting, serving and retaining special education students, English language learners and others from underserved and at-risk populations. They also must agree to publicly track and report their student mobility and achievement data.

One of the most promising things about the compacts is that participating charter schools must actively share demonstrated best practices and work with district public schools to scale up what works.

This is crucial because the vast majority of public school students in this country attend district schools.

For example, school leaders in Denver have mapped out exactly where the biggest needs exist. They’ve figured out things such as which neighborhoods need better school options, and what the needs are for programs to serve special education and English language learner populations. They are putting out requests for proposals for district or charter schools to meet those goals.

Denver, as well as Los Angeles, New Orleans, Nashville and Rochester, will offer charter schools additional space to open new schools if they agree to develop specialized programs to serve specific populations of students, such as creating more high-quality high school options or ELL programs. It’s an example of how districts can seize opportunities to work together and reach more students.

Sensible Economics
The third principle is that the superintendent, mayor, school board members and other local leaders agree to support the success of public charter schools.

According to the Brookings Institution, charter schools receive far less public funding than traditional district schools. A study published by Ball State University in 2010 found that across the states, per-pupil funding of charters was 19 percent less than the amount districts receive. The disparity was greater in the study’s focus districts, where charter schools receive $3,727 less per pupil than district schools.

At the same time, charter schools must reduce their dependence on private philanthropy to become financially sustainable. In some cases, private philanthropy pushes the total amount charter schools spend above the comparable amount spent by surrounding districts.

One major driver of the difference in public revenues relates to the costs to find and finance adequate facilities. While most traditional schools are housed in public buildings that have long been owned by the school districts, most charter schools need to secure and pay for new buildings. Moreover, public charter schools typically don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts have in securing contracts for supplies, products and services.

School districts must support the equitable distribution of resources and per-pupil funding across both traditional district schools and public charter schools. In addition, districts need to get away from arbitrary limitations on charter school success, such as caps on the number of charters that do not take into consideration whether the programs are helping students succeed. School districts also should agree to include public charter schools in their broader decision making.

In Nashville’s compact, the district agreed to include charters in its student-assignment and facility-use plans. The Rochester, N.Y., City School District is committed to providing no-cost lease or rental of buildings to high-quality charter schools in the city.

Although it’s not a compact city, San Antonio offers a great example of collaboration, in which the district provides a charter school with an affordable lease, and the charter school provides the district with its innovative teacher professional development and arts curricula.

Accountability Measures
The fourth principle is that the superintendent and charter leaders must accept a mutual obligation to pursue accountability across all schools in the city. Once we agree that students don’t belong to particular schools but to communities, everyone shares an obligation to make sure every student gets a great education.

This means holding both public district schools and public charter schools equally accountable for student performance. We know while some public charter schools have been incredibly successful, many others have fallen short. To give confidence to students, parents and communities and to maintain a high standard for all schools, districts and states must enforce accountability by directing all poorly performing schools to improve or face closure.

Although it doesn’t currently have a compact, the Arizona Charter Schools Association created student growth percentiles to measure student progress and worked in partnership with the Arizona Department of Education to post online every district and charter school’s median growth percentile for grades 4 through 8.

A nonprofit organization called New Schools for New Orleans reviews the performance of district and charter schools in that city and advises city leaders on which schools should be closed and which should be expanded.

PRINCIPLE NO. 5: COMMIT TO REPLICATE WHAT WORKS. The final principle is that the superintendent, school board members, mayors, elected officials and charter leaders must embrace and act enthusiastically to help the most effective schools expand and replicate, whether those schools are district or charter schools. The goal is to extend quality offerings to larger numbers of students. When charter schools and district schools are pitted against each other, we lose sight of what is most important — identifying which practices, regardless of a school’s governance structure, are helping students achieve.

In Los Angeles, the Public School Choice program enables charter schools and other organizations to apply to operate campuses and schools that are performing poorly. If they successfully gain control of a school, they must not only put in place a rigorous program for improvement, but also demonstrate results.

In New Orleans, the Recovery School District is partnering with a nonprofit organization to choose charter-management organizations to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools. The idea is to help districts leverage the resources they already have to improve student outcomes.

Ambitious Ways
One of my colleagues put it best when he told an interviewer that, just a few years ago, if someone had predicted that districts and charters in cities across the country would be coming together in this way, he would have thought it was outrageous. Now, it’s just ambitious.

We need more leaders to be ambitious about getting out of the old ways of thinking and focus instead on what’s best for all students. That’s how we’ll move from outrageous to ambitious to collaboration that is commonplace — and revolutionary.

At the Gates Foundation, we recognize these compacts are small pieces of the puzzle, but it’s our hope they are corner pieces. These nine cities can influence other school districts to build opportunities for collaboration between district and charter schools.

Vicki Phillips is director of Education, College Ready in the U.S. Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Wash. E-mail: Vicki.Phillips@gatesfoundation.org