District-Charter Partnerships Offer Another Route to Charter Expansion

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Taxpayers own public school buildings, which should be available to all public school students. But as charter operators know, that’s not the reality. Access to affordable school buildings is one of the biggest obstacles to expanding charter schools. Yet in many of our cities, school districts have empty or half-empty buildings.

The logical solution—districts selling or leasing facilities to charter operators—is often rejected by district leaders, for political reasons. This is particularly egregious in cities like Washington, D.C., and New York City, where thousands of low-income students are on waitlists for charter school seats.

Happily, a better model is emerging. More than a dozen urban districts are partnering with nonprofit organizations to turn around failing schools, and that partnership usually includes a free district facility. This should interest charter school operators who fit the bill.

This new model has been implemented in Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Tulsa, Okla., Baton Rouge, Los Angeles, Camden, N.J., as well as Lawrence and Springfield, Mass., and Grand Prairie, Spring Branch, Midland, and Beaumont, Tex. The autonomous schools in these districts are known by various names: typically innovation schools, Renaissance schools, or partnership schools.

In these cities, it’s shaping up to be a win-win-win for charter schools, families, and districts. Charter operators get better funding and free facilities, allowing them to put more money in the classroom. And while they are autonomous, they are also part of a district, often viewed more as partners than enemies.

Families get better schools for their children, more choices, and often a variety of learning models to choose from (e.g. project-based, blended learning, Montessori, STEM, performing arts, etc.).

Districts get high-performing organizations to turn around their worst schools, and they get credit under state accountability rules for the improvement these operators create. Districts also get an opportunity to learn from effective school operators. In Denver, for example, I’ve counted at least nine practices that emerged in charter schools but made the leap into district policy or district schools—everything from home visits by teachers to advisories to incubating new schools.

Finally, districts get to experience the governance paradigm that helps urban charter schools perform so much better than district-operated schools: significant autonomy for school operators, accountability for performance, a diversity of learning models to meet the needs of diverse students, choice for families, and competition between public schools. In a few districts, led by Indianapolis Public Schools, leaders have extended this approach to many of their district-operated schools.

There is always the danger that the teacher unions and their anti-charter allies will win school board elections and end the détente with in-district autonomous schools. If that happens, schools can continue as independent charter schools, but may lose their district buildings. If there are enough of them, however, and if parents are happy with them, districts will face political headwinds in evicting them.

At the Progressive Policy Institute, we believe our urban and large suburban districts need to adopt this new paradigm fully, to meet the needs of their students. To help make that happen, we have published The Third Way: A Guide to Implementing Innovation Schools, which includes model state legislation to create permission and incentives for districts to do this.

Some states already have such legislation, including Indiana, Texas, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Georgia. If you think it might be time to push your state to pass a similar bill, we hope you will get in touch with us. We would love to help.


David Osborne, author of Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System, directs the K-12 education work of the Progressive Policy Institute.