Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

It’s Time for Public Schools and Public Charters to Work Together

By Vicki L. Phillips — January 11, 2011 4 min read
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Last month, as the result of the District-Charter Collaboration Compact sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, nine cities from across the country came together to commit to overcoming one of the most persistent divides in public education and accelerate progress for all of our students: public charter schools vs. traditional public schools.

The cities—Baltimore; Denver; Hartford, Conn.; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; Nashville, Tenn.; New Orleans; New York City; and Rochester, N.Y.—announced compacts between their public school districts and public charter schools, a significant step toward expanding and institutionalizing collaboration in an area that has experienced far too much contentiousness. The compacts represent a bold commitment between district and charter leaders to build on each other’s strengths in pursuit of a common mission—giving every student a great education.

At the Gates Foundation, we believe it’s all about the students, too. That’s why we’ve invested in public charter schools, which can be incubators of innovation. And it’s why we’ve invested in traditional district schools, many of which have shown the ability to be innovative in their own right. In both types of schools, we focus our investments on the same sets of classroom-based issues: making sure all students have high standards and a demanding curriculum, imparted by great teachers.

As a former teacher, superintendent, and state education secretary, I’ve learned a couple of key lessons over the course of a life spent in education.

First, the only things that are viral in education are the viruses that come to school during cold and flu season. To actually transmit best practices from classroom to classroom, much less from school to school, district to district, and state to state, is incredibly hard.

Second, while public charter schools are a critical component of the public school system, they account for just 3 percent of our nation’s public school students. They will never fully replace traditional school districts.

So if we want to have a measurable impact on student achievement, we need to create a pipeline through which good ideas and lessons learned can be shared between charter and district schools. These compacts will create the pipeline. Around the country, there are already examples of collaborations between charter and district schools. But these sorts of partnerships are too few and too diffuse. That’s why the Gates Foundation is excited to support the compact efforts. In our experience, district public schools and public charter schools can learn a lot from each other, if they commit to listening to one another. The compacts enshrine that commitment.

For example, one of the biggest challenges charter schools face is finding quality facilities. In Rochester’s compact, the city’s school district is committed to providing no-cost lease or rental of buildings to charter schools in the city.

We simply don't have time to argue about whether district or charter schools are better, as though there's a zero-sum competition for excellent schools.

In Denver, district and charter schools are developing and implementing a common approach to enrollment across all schools, and ensuring that parents are informed about all the school choices in the city.

In Los Angeles, district and charter schools will share new tools for teacher evaluation, strategies for recognizing highly effective teachers and principals, and improved professional-growth opportunities for all teachers and principals.

The city leaders who signed the compacts are leaving behind stale fights about governance structure in favor of collaborative efforts to give all young people great public school options. They will ensure students in both district and public charter schools have equitable access to funding and facilities, and that charter schools reach all students, including English-language learners and those with special needs.

These leaders recognize that the scale of problems we face requires us to admit there is no silver bullet—we need excellent district schools and excellent charter schools.

I can’t say it better than it’s written in Denver’s compact: “The children living within Denver do not belong to a particular district school or to a particular charter school—the children in Denver are all our children.”

Additional cities have already expressed interest in developing their own district-charter collaboration compacts to reflect this spirit of collaboration. We hope these nine cities will continue to inspire many more across the country to start working together on behalf of all students.

In an economy where a postsecondary degree has become a prerequisite for success, one-third of students never graduate from high school, and half of those who go to college never get a diploma. We simply don’t have time to argue about whether district or charter schools are better, as though there’s a zero-sum competition for excellent schools.

We need to focus instead on improving classrooms so that every school can be a great school, and every student can get the education she deserves. These compacts allow us to sharpen that focus, and begin looking forward, together.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as It’s Time for Public Schools and Public Charters to Work Together

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