Having More School Options Can Be a Win-Win for Cities and Parents

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When charter schools first opened, some believed, these new public schools were created to kill public education in the US by letting public school students take some of their public education funding outside of the district system. For others, charters schools were going to be beacons for innovation that would create education laboratories and develop thousands of unique approaches to teaching students. Twenty-five years later, public education isn’t dead and, while lots of amazing innovative ideas have been seeded and grown in charter schools, their role as beacons of change has materialized mostly in our most troubled urban districts.

In many cities, there are now portfolios of public schools – charter and district-run- that give parents more options for their children. Healthy public school systems, with high-quality charter and non-charter options give those parents and their children a shot at middle-class factors, such as going to college or owning a home.

In 2014-15, there were six public school districts in the US with nearly half of their students in charter schools and almost 30 with one-quarter or more. As more cities reach these thresholds, it’s important to figure out how to ensure that shifting enrollment share can be win-win for both sectors.

A new report, Is Détente Possible? District-Charter Relations in Four Cities, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Public Impact explores this topic. Not surprisingly, healthy collaboration wins the day. Denver’s environment is described as “trading partners,” meaning that they “engage in a level-playing field and trade openly to their mutual benefit.” Boston, on the other hand, which faces strict caps on the number of charter schools that can exist, is described as “protectionism under pressure,” in which the cap acts as a protective tariff that “shields the district from competition.” DC is a “superpower summit” with two sectors of similar size and influence that are trending towards “productive co-existence.” And, indeed, the latest NAEP results bear that out.

There is much to be learned from these very different environments and  as more cities head towards portfolio systems, the report’s recommendations should be heeded. For district leaders – choose your charter partners wisely to make sure that they are high-quality, and open the door for facilities. For charter leaders – be pragmatic; be creative; cut a deal and make yourself valuable. For the rest of us – push for policy solutions, rally the troops and protect the gains made thus far from political whims. 

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