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Smart Cities: Where Districts & Charters Are Partners

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In the early 90s, charter schools were a novelty in a handful of states--a pressure release valve for a few brave edupreneurs. By 1999 there were about 1,500 charters and a few charter management organizations (CMO) were getting off the ground with help from NewSchools Venture Fund. Early arguments about charter access to public facilities resulted in California's Prop 39 in 2000.

By 2005, it was clear that regional CMOs were achieving quality at scale and were the most important development in U.S. public education of the decade. It was also becoming clear that a portfolio strategy was the urban path forward--a high-demand, high-support combination of school improvement and new school development, a multi-provider partnership of district and charter schools. However, as competition for students expanded in most urban areas, district-charter relationships often became contentious.

By 2011, there were 5,277 charters and new governance structures including the Louisiana Recovery School District, the Tennessee Achievement School District, and Michigan's Education Achievement Authority. Both district and charter schools were adopting blended instructional strategies and a layer of digital opportunity-- full and part time online learning--was available to most U.S. students.

Ranging from competitive to cool, to collaborative, the relationship between school districts and charters is of growing importance now that more than 25 cities have more than 20% charter enrollment. Three quarters of New Orleans students attend charters; soon half of all students in Detroit and D.C. will attend charters. Almost 100,000 students attend charters in LA.

In most urban areas districts and charters compete for students, argue about facilities, and worry about budgets. But with more than 6,000 charters and growing pressure for achievement, there are more signs of collaboration.

The most basic areas of collaboration is a universal enrollment system for all public schools in a city. If the state accountability system doesn't, it helps to have a common metrics to help families evaluate all schools on consistent criteria.

Compact Cities. To promote district-charter collaboration, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is sponsoring partnerships in 15 cities: Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Central Falls (RI), Chicago, Hartford, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Spring Branch (TX). Some cities have lots of charters--New Orleans has 70% charter enrollment--others like Nashville are just getting started with only 2% enrollment.

These communities have signed District-Charter Collaboration Compacts - plans for bold collaboration between public charter and district public schools. In 2012, seven of the cities received grants between $2 and $4 million to support deeper work.

Beyond the basics of enrollment policies, there is an interesting and timely list of topics for compact cities to work on:

  • Articulating a shared vision and set of commitments to help them achieve it

  • Building a human capital pipeline and development system

  • Coping with legacy costs including pensions

  • Supports for implementing the Common Core

  • College-ready data systems and supports

  • Next generational learning models

  • Collaborative plans tackling the most intractable roadblocks

Last month, The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) issued an initiative review: District-Charter Collaboration Compact: Interim Report . In addition to progress by city, the report outlines "challenges like leadership transitions, local anti-charter politics, and key leaders' unwillingness to prioritize time and resources for implementation have thwarted efforts in some cities."

"In a somewhat remarkable turn of events," said the CRPE review, the "vicious dynamic is beginning to shift in some places." Charters have matured and gained public and foundation support. "It is no longer possible to ignore the results of select charter schools that go leagues beyond what most districts have been able to achieve in high-poverty neighborhoods."

The idea of multi-provider urban collaboration is catching on and so is the notion of thinking about educational provisioning as portfolio of options. CRPE is sponsoring a national network of more than 30 portfolio districts. Similarly CEE-Trust supports a national network of intermediaries and funders (with a big CRPE overlap) that support portfolio approaches.

Next. Beyond the basics, there are two big issues to tackle through these collaborations. First, It's Time to Separate Facilities From Operations. Districts have taxing authority to develop school facilities. In most cities, charters pay rent out of smaller budget. It's time to fix the problem.

The second big issue is the strategic opportunity for cities to begin act like a rational portfolio of educational options--to develop a system of managed choice where every family has transported access to a couple interesting options. That requires closing chronically failing schools, improving struggling schools with blended strategies and interesting themes, and being intentional about the location and type of new school development.

A layer of digital opportunity is easy and affordable to add. For example, most Miami Dade high schools have an iPrep Academy, a flex option, as well as a learning lab for part-time access (self blend) to online courses--both created in partnership with Florida Virtual.

As illustrated by the Smart Cities series, there are a growing number of exciting examples of public-private partnerships building portfolios of high quality educational options for students, families, and educators.

For more, see:

10 Ways Smart Cities Develop & Support Teachers

Smart Cities: 10 Opinions About What Matters

Improving Urban Education Options: A Digital Portfolio Approach

Good Urban Schools: A Portfolio Approach (the 2004 paper that helped kick off this work)

Disclosures: FLVS is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner

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