Education Funding

Gates Pushes District-Charter Collaborations

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 07, 2010 5 min read
Bill Gates attends a ceremony earlier this year in Washington, D.C. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced today that it is funding charter schools and traditional school districts in nine cities to share best practices and solve problems together.

Seeking to promote closer ties between charter schools and other public schools, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Tuesday that it is providing grants to enable charter schools and traditional school districts in nine cities to share best practices and solve problems together.

The nine collaborations are set to receive $100,000 each to carry out signed agreements, and they will compete to be among three selected for significantly larger grants from the foundation. The foundation did not specify dollar amounts for the larger grants.

“It’s new that we have funded districts and charters to come together in this way,” Vicki L. Phillips, the director of K-12 education initiatives for the Seattle-based foundation, said in a telephone interview. “For a long time, there have been tensions between districts and charters over an array of things, from facilities to recruitment and retention of staff. This [effort] is designed to say, ‘We want the highest-performing charters to be successful and the highest-performing districts to be successful.’ ”

The cities participating in the implementation of the first round of compacts are Baltimore; Denver; Hartford, Conn.; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; Nashville, Tenn.; New Orleans; New York; and Rochester, N.Y. The charter operators who have signed on to the agreements in some of the participating cities include leaders of Aspire Public Schools, based in Oakland, Calif., and the San Francisco-based Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.

Ms. Phillips said that the Gates Foundation aims with the new funding effort to support charter schools and other kinds of public schools to move beyond what she calls the “false debate” of “effective charters versus effective districts” and share lessons learned for improving student achievement. She said the foundation intends to support the sharing of best practices more broadly nationwide than has happened so far.

In most cases, the dollars will flow neither to the school district nor to the charter operators but rather to a third party to support the collaborative work of the two sectors, according to foundation staff. (The Gates Foundation also helps support Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week.)

Ms. Phillips said that in April, the foundation will roll out another round of grants to a still-to-be-determined number of cities where charter school and school district leaders have signed agreements to work together.

‘Times Have Changed’

The Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, will provide oversight for the new effort.

The new funding focus is “a mark that times have changed and charter schools are seen by these cities as a partnership model rather than a distinct parallel system,” said Robin Lake, the associate director for the center. She said it will be the center’s job to monitor how well the partners in the nine collaborations are fulfilling their promises. Also, she said, “We will look across the cities to help people understand what is working and what is not.”

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said the new investment “is positive and quite welcome” in that it urges charter schools and traditional schools to work together. That collaboration may help to allay some educators’ fears that charter advocates aim to undermine traditional schools, he said.

But Mr. Fuller added that he would like to see the Gates Foundation pay for more research to show how so-called innovative tools used by charter schools raise student achievement. “One worry has been that the Gates Foundation and Obama administration are so romantically seduced by charter schools that they aren’t establishing how these innovative practices actually lift student performance,” he said.

In Denver, one of the cities set to benefit from the Gates Foundation funding for collaboration, the 80,000-student Denver Public Schools and local charter schools are already working closely together, according to Tom Boasberg, the superintendent for that school system. The school district is the authorizer for charter schools in Denver.

History of Collaborating

The charter sector and traditional school sector have collaborated in Denver on school enrollment issues. For instance, three of Denver’s charter schools are required to serve all students in their neighborhoods, “regardless of who they are or when they enroll,” Mr. Boasberg said. One of those charter schools is the only public school in its particular neighborhood. Also a charter school opened this school year that serves students with severe special needs, while previously only regular public schools were set up to serve such students, he said.

Mr. Boasberg made a point of saying that the school district had closed or restructured six low-performing charter schools in Denver over the past several years.

The new compact signed by leaders of Denver charter schools and the district sets goals of expanding the reach of the city’s most effective schools, developing a common approach to enrollment, and sharing data systems, among other goals.

The compacts for both New York City and Nashville call for the development of a program through which school district principals and teachers can take a leave of absence for up to three years to work in a public charter school. In New Orleans, charter and district leaders will collaborate on creating a master teacher training program. They’ll also create and implement a common approach to enrollment with a goal of making it easier for families to take advantage of various school options.

Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute and a member of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, said he is disappointed that the nation’s capital isn’t participating in an agreement supported by the Gates Foundation, which he said he learned of only with this week’s announcement by the foundation.

He said that although Washington has a larger proportion of its students—about one-third of the city’s 28,000 students—enrolled in charters than in many cities, the charter sector and traditional public school sector haven’t communicated much with each other. That was true, he noted, even though, in his view, Michelle A. Rhee, who recently resigned as chancellor of the school system, shared many educational goals with leaders of the charter schools.

“When Michelle Rhee was really pushing for reform hard in Washington, I thought the two sectors would start to converge because her interest was the same as the charter board’s—to raise the quality of chronically underperforming schools,” Mr. Marshall said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week

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