Whitmire: In Bridging Charter-District Divide, Educators Collaborate to Make the Impossible Happen

Cleveland, Ohio

Sometimes, shifts in education practice can creep up on you. Over time, what had seemed impossible becomes merely improbable. And then, almost unnoticed, the improbable becomes the ordinary.

Could that be happening now with more frequent collaborations between traditional public schools and charters?

In past years, the reality of collaborations never quite measured up to their feel-good hype. Often, there was little “there” there.

And if you look only at charter/district conflict spots, such as Los Angeles, where charters are battling it out with the union and the conflict has taken over the school board races, collaborations appear to be firmly stuck in the impossible stage.

The trend-spotting trick here is to look beyond the big conflicts to places where charter/district wars never broke out — cities, such as Denver and Indianapolis, where collaborations are happening simply because they make sense to school leaders.

And then there are cities such as Cleveland, where collaborations are happening in part because there was no choice.

Another little-noticed development: The nation’s biggest charter/district collaboration may be the schools adopting Summit Learning’s high-tech teaching model, fashioned with the help of a team of Facebook engineers. Currently, 132 schools are participating in the Summit Learning program, 70 percent of which are district schools.

Barely remarked upon is the fact that Summit is a network of public charter schools passing along its model to traditional public schools. And yet there are no cries about “privatizing” our schools. Why? Probably because in adopting Summit Learning, superintendents don’t lose any students to charters and the unions don’t lose any teachers.

Still, the Summit partnerships are successful charter/district collaborations.

Education philanthropists, as usual, are ahead of the curve. Take Washington, D.C., where the CityBridge Foundation just launched a new nonprofit, CityBridge Education, with an aggressive “25 in five” goal: create 25 high-performing schools over the next five years. Here’s what’s interesting: CityBridge is platform-neutral; this will be a mix of charter and traditional schools.

What CityBridge is doing mirrors other new philanthropy initiatives in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. The clear message: Charter-vs.-district is a debate that matters only to adult insiders who long ago took sides in the education wars. Creating high-performing schools is what matters to parents and children.

Districts need what charters have, and vice versa. Why not make nice?

That’s pretty much the story in Cleveland, home to a beleaguered school district that was losing students fast to both the suburbs and charter schools, many of which were not much better than the city’s troubled traditional schools.

That led to an interesting collaboration between charters and district schools, an agreement that hasn’t solved every education challenge but has gone a long way toward establishing a simple principle: Let’s grow quality schools, shut down terrible schools, and not worry so much about whether they are charter or traditional schools.

So it makes sense that Cleveland was chosen for a conference organized by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a Seattle-based group that tracks collaborations across the country. Last week, Cleveland charter and district folks swapped stories with other collaborators around the country in cities such as Denver, Tacoma, Nashville, Indianapolis, Providence, Tulsa, Houston, San Antonio, Washington, D.C., and yes, surprisingly enough, New York City, where Uncommon Schools has convinced the charter-unfriendly de Blasio administration that it has something valuable to offer city schools (and vice versa).

The move toward looking at schools as neutral platforms can be seen in both Cleveland and Newark, cities with severe challenges that never had the luxury of debating education reform rather than simply doing it as fast as possible.

In a recent op-ed, Chris Cerf, superintendent of Newark Public Schools, explained his platform-neutral approach. “Whether it’s a county vo-tech school, a traditional school, a charter school, or a privately run early-childhood center — we leave it to the ideologues to focus on how a school came into being and direct our attention instead on our central value — is the school working for children?”

For newcomers to the nation’s education wars, this may sound like stating the obvious. Unfortunately, in many cities, the obvious has gotten trampled by the fierce battling over charter schools.

As for Cleveland, not long ago the city endured too many struggling district schools and too many low-performing charters. By transitioning to a public-private partnership, called the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, struggling schools got closed and high performers got launched — regardless of their charter/district “flavor.”

At the CRPE conference, Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon described the mind-set change in his town: “The more we work together, the more we shift the community conversation away from choosing district over charter and get people to ask: Is this a good option or not?”

Teachers in Cleveland want to talk to other good teachers, said Gordon, regardless of where they teach. “And our union leaders have gone to visit some high-performing charters. … With collaboration, it’s about good choice versus bad choice.”

On a panel with Gordon was Scott Pearson, who oversees the D.C. Public Charter School Board. In Washington, where nearly half the students attend charters, parents have quickly shifted in the direction of picking schools because they are right for their children — not based on whether they are district or charter.

Already, Pearson has collaborated with the traditional district in Washington on a common school lottery and common “equity” reports that fairly compare schools. That’s not to dismiss charter/district tensions in Washington, cautioned Pearson, who said charter advocates believe the city is sitting on empty school buildings rather than turning them over to charters.

But the only path forward is more collaboration, he said. The “new frontier” of collaboration, said Pearson, will be better community engagement, special education, teacher recruitment, expulsion policies, and transportation.

One factor pushing collaborations is the brutal math behind urban education: Too many cities have too many traditional schools they can’t turn around (think Philadelphia), and many charters find their growth slowing, in part because they lack buildings in which to start new schools. Why not merge common interests?

Sarah Yatsko from CRPE, who ran the Cleveland conference, agrees that a collaboration corner has been turned. But she’s seen too many charter/district conflicts to declare victory. “Just because we’ve turned the corner doesn’t mean we couldn’t come back around that corner,” she said.

And yet, there’s hope for at least small amounts of collaboration, even in cities that have seen recent charter/district conflicts. That description fits Boston, where a fierce campaign by teachers unions and superintendents recently blocked a move to expand the number of charters in Massachusetts.

Despite that, last week the Boston Educators Collaborative launched a program that brings together teachers from charter, Catholic, and traditional schools to share best teaching practices.

If collaboration can happen in Boston, could Los Angeles be next? Probably not anytime soon.

But even Los Angeles, in the future, could quietly shift from impossible to improbable — and surprise everyone.

Richard Whitmire is the author of several education books, including The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent and Re-invent America’s Best Charter Schools.

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