Academic journal article Education Next

Inside Successful District-Charter Compacts

Academic journal article Education Next

Inside Successful District-Charter Compacts

Article excerpt

Not far from the heart of Houston, an unlikely alliance between a school district and nearby charter schools is bringing the best of both worlds to area students. As with most breakthroughs, the catalyst was simple curiosity. Duncan Klussmann, superintendent of schools for the Spring Branch school district, wondered just what was going on in those high-performing charter schools peppered around Houston, where both YES Prep and KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) operated several schools. Did they know something he needed to know?

Klussmann is a folksy, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy and a very traditional superintendent. But he did something most superintendents would never do: he scheduled a visit to a YES Prep school and spent some time with founder Chris Barbic. "I was really impressed with the culture, the environment, the interaction with the kids," Klussmann recalled. "As I tell people, I often gauge things by whether my own three kids are missing out on something by not being part of a really good program."

Teachers and administrators collaborate to share best practices

About a year later, Klussmann accepted an invitation to visit a KIPP school. Again, he liked what he saw. What stuck in his mind was the special classroom culture. Most of all, he liked the urgency: these teachers taught like their "hair was on fire," to borrow a line from famed Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith.

How, Klussmann wondered, could I import some of that special sauce into my schools? And then he found a way. Why not make charter operators partners rather than competitors? We have what they want, great buildings and access to thousands of students they otherwise would have little chance of reaching. And they have that special culture we need to adopt.

So he did something else that most school superintendents would never even consider: he invited both YES Prep and KIPP to take up residency in two middle schools, building grade-by-grade expansions that would lead to YES Prep establishing a high school program within an existing Spring Branch high school.

Turns out Klussmann was on to something. More than 20 public school districts across the country, including the large urban districts of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, have quietly entered into "compacts" with charters and thereby declared their intent to collaborate with their charter neighbors on such efforts as professional development for teachers and measuring student success.

Striking a Bargain

The political appeal of district-charter compacts is evident. For mayors who have long admired the top charter schools in their cities but also remain wary of crossing the politically potent teachers unions that are hostile to charters, the "compact" designation nicely reduces the political heat. No longer is it districts (and their unions) against charters; it's districts embracing charters. Who could be against that?

Unfortunately, it's too soon to celebrate the end of the charter school wars. Compacts are still few in number, and not all have moved their districts past long-standing grievances (see, for example, "Boston and the Charter School Cap," features, Winter 2014).

"Today we are on the battlefield of an ugly, nonproductive war on charters, all while children are stuck in underperforming public schools," said Joseph DiSalvo, a former San Jose teacher and current member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which serves as an appeal board for charters rejected by school districts in the San Jose area.

District-charter compacts are sometimes a mere footnote to what remain caustic charter school battles, such as the one that took place in early 2014 in New York City. Newly elected New York City mayor Bill de Blasio moved to rein in the Success Academy charters run by his former political rival, Eva Moskowitz, by cancelling agreements that enabled charter schools to operate within district school buildings. …

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