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Sarah Butrymowicz

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Charters and Traditional Public Schools: Partners Rather Than Rivals?

Posted: 12/16/2010 5:39 pm

Ever since the first one opened in Minnesota 18 years ago, charter schools have been regarded by many teachers, union leaders and school-district leaders as interlopers on their public education turf. Districts complain that charter schools attract the best students and siphon off public money that would otherwise be theirs.

Charter-school operators and advocates dispute both claims: they say that charter schools are public schools, and they usually receive less funding per student than traditional public schools do. They also say they're more likely to serve minority and disadvantaged students than local public schools, giving them an alternative to failing schools, where before they had none.

The back-and-forth by advocates in both camps has gone on for years, fueled by research studies, anecdotal evidence and political maneuvering. Most recently, the movie Waiting for "Superman" stoked the debate, portraying charter schools as the savior of students stuck in failing public schools -- and teachers unions as the force fighting to keep them there.

Amid the policy fights, it's easy to forget that charters and districts share -- or, at least, should share -- the same essential goal: to educate students well.

Now, that realization seems to be sinking in, and in a growing number of communities, charters and districts are putting their differences aside. Charter-district collaborations have sprung up in New Haven, Conn., the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Philadelphia, Denver, New Orleans, Washington, D.C. and a number of other cities.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced last week that it would encourage some of these efforts by awarding $100,000 grants to cities where the parties are willing to sign "compacts" pledging cooperation and teamwork. (Disclosure: The Gates Foundation is among The Hechinger Report's many funders.) The nine recipients, which enroll 30 percent of all U.S. students in urban settings, will be competing for six larger grants of undisclosed sums.

Each city is starting at a different point, which will affect how much they can achieve. For instance, cities like Los Angeles and Rochester, where there has been a lot of animosity between charter schools and districts (and their teachers' unions), "have a little bit farther to go just to build the trust," said Erin Dillon, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. policy think tank. She's most eager to see what happens in Denver, where cooperation is already the norm and where she suspects the parties will be able to accomplish the most.

In Denver, where the grants were announced, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said "all of our schools, district-run or charter, serve all of our kids, and all means all."

West Denver Prep, a charter middle school in a section of the city home to many Latino students and some of the state's lowest-performing schools, is one of the best-performing schools in Denver. Founder Chris Gibbons said that, with the district's help, he will expand to 12 schools by 2020. The compact, he said, signals that "adults are putting aside differences and disagreements" to ensure all kids have access to a college-prep education. "This next era is about quality schools, great schools, college-prep schools -- not about the types of schools or the ways we run them."

By next August, nearly half of Denver's 40 charter schools will operate in district facilities; charters and traditional schools in the city each enroll about the same proportion of poor, minority and special-education students, who can be more challenging to educate.

Also receiving grants were Baltimore; Hartford, Conn.; Minneapolis; Nashville, Tenn.; New Orleans and New York City. Charter schools have been central to the reform strategy pursued by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, as they've sought to shut down weak schools and replace them with new ones, run by the district or as charters.

The grants from the Gates Foundation will provide the cities with access to consultants and advisors that the foundation has lined up for them. The possibility of receiving significantly larger grants also may encourage doubters to go along.

Each of the compacts is different, but a major goal of all is to increase the number of successful schools and shut down those that are failing. Many of the charter schools taking part agreed to increase their enrollments of English language learners and special-education students. Historically, these students have been more likely to attend regular schools, which generally are better equipped to meet their needs. The participating cities also will work on increasing the effectiveness of teachers and creating programs of study in sync with newly developed national academic standards in math and language arts.

Compacts like these are consistent with the original concept behind charter schools. Albert Shanker, the late former president of the American Federation of Teachers and among the first to espouse the idea of charter schools, thought they would use the freedom from bureaucratic regulations they enjoy to come up with innovations that traditional schools could then adopt. This is one of the arguments in favor of charters made by President Barack Obama.

But, understandably, charter schools soon came to be seen by those who advocated school choice as a way to infuse competition into public education, according to Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System. She says that when that occurred, Shanker, a staunch advocate of public schools, became a critic of charter schools.

It's too early to say how much these partnerships will accomplish, said Dillon of Education Sector. But simply putting out there the notion that charters and districts don't have to be bitter enemies is an important initial step.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report , a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.