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Charter Accountability For District-Run Schools: Using ESSA to Create Contract-Based Accountability for Urban Public Education

Andy Smarick

The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gives states the opportunity to rethink their K-12 accountability systems. Gone are No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) tight rules for assessing and intervening in schools and districts. This couldn’t come at a better time for urban schooling. Urban districts operate in a very different context than they did when accountability systems emerged about two decades ago when the district was the monopoly provider of public education in most cities. Today, the district is simply one of many operators. In some cities, like New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., the district is operating, or could soon operate, fewer than half of the public schools. ESSA’s flexibility and this new reality enables state leaders to explore how they might apply charter-style accountability to district-run schools.

This report explores how states can create a new approach to accountability for urban school districts that builds on the lessons learned in the charter school movement over the past quarter century. Specifically, in cities with large, growing, and high-performing charter school sectors, this report explores how states could apply charter-style accountability to district-run schools. This isn’t a portfolio system as we know them today: each of the city’s public schools (charter and district-run) would have a performance contract with an independent, non-district authorizer. This would allow state leaders to give district-run schools charter- like autonomy and create a single citywide accountability system. The city’s new K-12 landscape would be defined by a wide array of co-equal school operators and a diversity of schools held accountable through a single rigorous and publicly transparent process.