Often Foes, Some Districts and Charters Forge Partnerships

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Florida is wading into largely uncharted waters with an initiative to fuel collaboration between two sectors often cast as foes in the debate over how to improve K-12 education: regular public schools and charters.

Nationwide, districts from Los Angeles to Denver to Baltimore have sought to forge such ties, but Florida’s effort is unusual in being led by the state.

Florida leaders are aiming to entice high-performing national charter school networks into the state’s largest urban districts, in what some experts say would be one of the most far-reaching efforts to nurture mutually beneficial relationships between the two sectors. The state’s department of education is offering financial incentives, through a new grant program, to help some of its highest-need districts attract charter franchises with solid track records for serving low-income schoolchildren.

The lure—for both sectors—is the promise of sharing resources and best practices.

“I think the most important benefit would be an increase in [overall] achievement,” said Adam M. Miller, the director of the Florida education department’s school choice office. “We think that can happen through these collaborations.”

Although the fraught and even acrimonious relationships between regular public schools and their public, but independently run, charter counterparts often dominate, there are a few places where district-run schools and charters appear not only to peacefully coexist, but also to have developed synergistic relationships. Most of those partnerships are happening at the district and citywide levels.

Proponents of such initiatives say those collaborations have the potential to provide charters with resources to tackle some of the most persistent challenges for the sector, including finding facilities and providing special education services. In return, districts can tap into resources like charters’ teacher and administrator professional-development programs.

Collaboration Roots

The idea for Florida’s new program grew out of a 2013 summit held to examine why the state wasn’t reeling in more of the large, nationally high-profile charter franchises such as YES Prep Public Schools, Uncommon Schools, and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP. The meeting included superintendents, state leaders, and representatives from some of those charter school networks. With limited resources and demand from other states, the large national networks have shied away from Florida because there are better opportunities in other states. KIPP is in the state, but operates a single school in Jacksonville.

“One of the take-aways was [that] one of the things lacking in Florida was this systemic collaborative approach between charters and districts,” said Mr. Miller. “And there was a desire from both operators and districts on how we could build upon some of the collaborations that were taking place across the country.”

To help foster those relationships, state education officials created the grant program this past summer and initially offered districts $10,000 to research and explore collaboration ideas and potential partners. So far, the program has amassed about $2.5 million for the grants. Pooling money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, repurposed federal Race to the Top funds, and yet-to-be-obtained philanthropic dollars, the state plans to invest $10 million to sustain all of its district-charter collaborations over a four-year period. (The Gates Foundation also helps support Education Week’s coverage of college and career-ready standards.)

Several eligible districts have expressed interest in alliances with charters, including the 345,000-student Miami-Dade County schools.

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“In my opinion, the original intent of charter schools was to create innovative and effective pilot programs to improve student performance to be shared and perhaps replicated within the traditional public school sector,” said Tiffanie A. Pauline, a Miami-Dade County assistant superintendent, in a statement to Education Week. “Somewhere along the charter movement, the original intent of the legislation appears to have been lost.”

Ms. Pauline said that while there are some examples of district-charter collaboration in Miami-Dade, specifically with four schools that contract with the district to provide management-related services, she said too few charters are in high-needs areas. And many charters are using practices and curriculum typical of district schools.

Ms. Pauline said the district is still “in an exploratory phase,” although it sent staff members to Texas to visit some YES Prep and KIPP schools, and to Chicago to see Youth Connection Charter Schools, which specialize in serving recovered dropouts or students at risk of dropping out.

Local Initiatives

While state-led efforts to encourage collaboration between the regular and charter school sectors have been rare, local initiatives have cropped up in several cities and districts.

About 20 cities from Baltimore to Los Angeles have signed collaboration “compacts” with local charter schools as part of a larger initiative, also backed with Gates Foundation funding. The substance of those partnerships and their degree of success vary, but generally they aim to formalize the sharing of resources and best practices between the two sectors.

Among the first cities to sign a compact was Denver, in 2010, but by then the district was already working collaboratively with its local charter schools on an issue that has long plagued the charter movement: special education. With the offer of funding and other supports on par with their district school counterparts, several Denver charters agreed to host special education centers for some of the city’s highest-need students.

“We’re in the process of opening over a dozen specialized programs for students with severe disabilities in charters,” said Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “Within three years, our charters will have the exact same proportion of students with severe disabilities as our district-run schools.”

Exchange of Assets

But collaboration initiatives are not confined to those 20 cities, nor are they limited to special education services. They take many forms, from sharing extracurricular programs, to a more quid-pro-quo agreement in which a district might provide facilities for charters in exchange for access to their professional-development programs for teachers and principals. Such is the case with the St. Louis public schools and KIPP.

St. Louis is not among the compact cities, but district and charter school leaders there have entered into a partnership whereby the district provides KIPP with rent-free access to its unused buildings, while KIPP opens up its leadership-development program to the district’s administrators. KIPP has two schools in the St. Louis district.

“The big one is obviously the building,” said Steve Mancini, a KIPP spokesman, about giving charters access to school facilities, an ongoing challenge for the sector. “Every traditional school has inherited wealth—the building and the ability to issue bonds that a charter school does not have.”

Also part of the agreement in St. Louis: KIPP’s state test scores will be counted toward the district’s overall achievement, starting this year.

The St. Louis partnership marks a huge turnaround for a district and charter sector that, unlike in Denver, does not have a long history of good relations.

Although district-charter collaboration holds promise, data backing up its value are sparse.

“We’re still pretty early in this idea,” said Sarah K. Yatsko, a senior policy analyst with the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. She co-authored a 2013 report on the 20 compact cities—work that has also received some Gates Foundation funding—that found, in part, that turnover in leadership and other implementation woes can slow the momentum of a collaboration.

But, Ms. Yatsko said, there could be benefits to Florida and other states pushing for collaboration compacts.

“If there were legislative fixes that needed to happen, and the state is driving this work, … presumably that would be more likely to happen,” she said. “I do consider the Florida piece to be potentially the next evolution in that way.”

Vol. 34, Issue 08, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: October 15, 2014, as Some Districts, Charters Forge New Partnerships
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