Education Opinion

Choosing Excellent Schools—Not Charter Versus District

By Tom Vander Ark — July 12, 2014 4 min read
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By guest blogger Don Shalvey

In the Bay Area, where I live, people either root for the San Francisco Giants or the Oakland Athletics. Not both. In Chicago, you are a Cubs fan or you
root for the White Sox. In New York, it is Yankees or Mets.

Too often these days in schools, if you support charter schools you are seen as against the school district or even against public schools. Or, if you are
a supporter of the district, you are often seen as anti-charter and against giving educational choices to parents.

But schools are not sports teams. For students, education shouldn’t be a zero-sum game among adults. It doesn’t have to be. Adult labels can be put aside
in favor of better schools for students. Some places are doing that. In a score of diverse communities, leaders from local school districts and
high-performing charter schools are coming together to put students first.

Not surprisingly, the players from both sectors are realizing they have the same goals, the same challenges and the same respect for the craft of teaching
and the joy of learning. They are replacing the charter-district battleground with common ground over excellent schools for students. Instead of choosing
sides, they are choosing excellence.

And, if we as a nation truly care about real educational opportunities for all children, this move is necessary. Without charters and districts working
cooperatively, we can’t produce the quality schools needed for all students to succeed. Excellent charter schools are critical but we won’t collectively
succeed without all schools becoming academically excellent. We need changed behaviors that produce better results.

For me, the common ground has been a long time coming. I’ve lived on both sides. I was a public school teacher and administrator in California and then a
district superintendent. Sixteen years ago, I founded Aspire Public Charter Schools, which has grown into a network of 37 schools that have delivered
success for California students and expanded into Tennessee last fall.

Five years ago, I joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given me the opportunity to spend time with successful educators and
entrepreneurs around the United States. Some of them are pushing to improve the system from the inside; some pushing from outside. But they share the same
goal of providing much richer opportunities for all students.

It’s no longer 1992 when I helped found California charter school #1 and the nation’s second. The sector is growing up and the concept has gone from
outrageous to ambitious. Consider the crossover effect where former superintendents like me have now formed and joined charter organizations while charter
leaders like John King and Stefan Pryor are now the chief schools officers in New York and Connecticut. Things are changing. The lines are appropriately
blurred in the service of youth.

Superintendents and charter leaders recognize that there’s more common ground than battleground, and mayors are echoing those sentiments as well. For
mayors, education is a quality of life issue and it’s about all the youth in their cities.

Consider the words of 16 superintendents who contributed to an OpEd in Education Week:

“We also must make charter schools a truly viable option. If all of our neighborhood schools were great, we wouldn’t be facing this crisis. But our
children need great schools now—whether district-run public schools or public charter schools serving all students—and we shouldn’t limit the numbers
of one form at the expense of the other. Excellence must be our only criteria for evaluating our schools.”

Here’s what walking that talk looks like...

Take a look at these promising district/charter compacts:

A. Consider the school co-location work in the SKY Partnership where Superintendent Duncan Klussman and the Spring Branch Independent School District has
teamed up with KIPP: Houston and YES Prep;

B. Learn about the way the Franklin-McKinley School District (San Jose CA) and Supt. John Porter are co-locating and offering space & facilities to
Rocketship and other charters;

C. See how the Hartford Public Schools and Achievement First are implementing a Principal Residency Program;

D. Peer to Peer Teacher Partnerships and supporting students with disabilities are two initiatives in the Denver Compact; and

E. A Common Enrollment System is underway in Boston, and finally

F. Central Falls (RI) Superintendent Fran Gallo & Mayor James Diossa have partnered with the charter schools in a facilities modernization project that
enhances the districts buildings and offers quality space for the charter schools.

To date there are 22 formal Compacts with a few more on the way. Not all are successful and some are moving at a more deliberate rate, but better
relationships are forming and the results will benefit entire communities of students and teachers.

Sure I get that there are 16,000 school districts and 22 Compacts is less than 0.0014%. So maybe it’s a “weak signal” that will fade, but I don’t think so.
My money is on a collaborators and crossover leaders who see impact from these early adopters.

Don Shalvey is Deputy Director of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Prior to working with Gates, Shalvey founded and led Aspire Public Schools

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.