Yesterday, the Gates Foundation announced that district and charter school leaders in nine cities have embraced a "District-Charter Collaboration Compact," in which the district and local charter schools pledge to collaborate in new ways. The nine cities involved are Baltimore, Denver, Hartford, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, and Rochester, N.Y. (Full disclosure: I've been involved as an advisor and reviewer on some of these efforts).
The Gates Foundation announced that these cities had to "commit to replicating high-performing models of traditional and charter public schools while improving or closing down" lousy schools, and that participating locales were pledging to address "contentious and persistent tensions between district and charter schools." Each city's agreement is signed by the district superintendent and multiple charter school leaders.
How significant is all this? And what do these compacts actually mean? I had the chance to put those questions yesterday to my pal Don Shalvey, Deputy Director of States, Districts, and Networks for the Gates Foundation and the force behind this effort.
Rick Hess: What's in this for the charter schools?
Don Shalvey: It's equity--equitable support, funding, and opportunities, and more cooperative support. The ability to get facilities and equitable funding is huge. In many places, charters will be eligible for loan packages or loan pools that some districts have access to. In California, that's a big deal, where charters can't participate in certain loan packages but districts can. So L.A. is saying they'll let charters participate in TRANs [Tax Revenue Anticipation Notes], which lowers the cost of loans for charters.
RH: And what do districts get?
DS: Districts get commitments from charters that all kids will be served. They're assured that charters won't be engaging in the systematic inclusion or exclusion of kids, that special needs kids and English language learners will be equally served and embraced by everyone, and that both district and charter schools get opportunities to learn from another. Districts want charters to serve special needs students at rates comparable to the communities where they are. And both sides commit to shared use of data, accountability, common assessments, and so on.
RH: How did this come about?
DS: I've had a longstanding interest in this kind of collaboration, given my background as a former superintendent and a charter founder. I thought it worthwhile to see what we could do. So we brought fourteen superintendents and charter leaders from their communities together in February 2010, about nine months ago. When we got these supes and charter leaders together, we thought it'd take a day and a half for them to be comfortable with one another. But after the second cocktail of the first night they were talking.
RH: What did they talk about?
DS: The superintendents were pretty frank about their issues with the charters. They complained about young charter leaders who disrespect what they're trying to do. They said to the charters, "You get to exclude kids, what's that about?" The charter leaders were saying, "You act like you want to work with us but your mid-level leaders just [dump] on us." We learned from that first meeting, and then we did another meeting in Texas with the large district supes and charter leaders. After we did that, we thought it was worth running up the flagpole.
RH: Some critics of the Gates Foundation suggest that you prefer charters to district schools. Any response?
DS: At Gates, we're capable of brokering these kinds of [district-charter] relationships. Now, there's plenty of anxiety about it. People worry whether the Gates Foundation is going to just do away with districts at the expense of charters. Well, the truth is anything but. We don't finance the growth of charters. So, this is not an either-or strategy, it's a both-and.
RH: Are you surprised that nine cities wound up participating in the compact?
DS: Yeah, we took a pretty realistic approach to seeing which cities were interested. I would've probably thought three or four. If you'd told me L.A. would get this done, I'd have said, "No way." I mean, the two sides are suing each other. The Rochester Teachers Union stood up and said we want to be a part of this, we think there's value in it. Just a few years ago, if you'd told me these places would be coming together to hold hands, it would've been outrageous--now it's just ambitious.
RH: How much money is involved?
DS: Each of the cities has the opportunity to apply for $100,000. We expect all the compact cities will [receive those dollars]. Right now, our plan is to support these compacts on the long end. We don't know yet whether that'll be through an RFP with a few big winners and a lot of losers, or something with a lot of cities winning more modest grants. We're probably going to invest at least a few million. No definite decision has been made yet on the amount or how we'll proceed, but there is a hard-and-fast commitment to work with the cities and charters.
RH: What's been the biggest stumbling block in this effort?
DS: It's been getting specifics into the compacts--getting folks to sit down and come to an agreement specific enough in writing and then getting the compacts signed. It's easier to talk about it than to put it in writing.
RH: What kind of take-up have you gotten from charters in these cities?
DS: It depends, but it's surpassed what I would've thought. Denver had 40-some charters and they got 100 percent of them to sign off. That's a pretty huge number. L.A.'s got something like 110 of about 160 charters to sign on. Now, our intent is not that every charter would sign on; because at some point, some kind of competition matters. We want some charters to say, "By being fiercely independent, we'll leverage opportunity for more kids."
RH: And how about the teachers unions? What's their reaction been?
DS: It ran the gamut, from Denver which was informed at the very end to Rochester which was supportive at the very beginning. United Teachers Los Angeles has known for a while and sat on the sidelines throughout. They've been in it to varying degrees in cities like Hartford and Nashville.
RH: So, does this cooperative push mean it's no longer useful to regard charters as a transformative force?
DS: We're acknowledging that charters are a bit more nimble than districts but that they aren't going to have a giant impact. If Apple is only 5 percent of market share in computers, they're not going to replace the PC world, but they've got a niche. Charters probably aren't ever going to get bigger than that.