States can help districts and charter schools work together

The idea that school districts and charter schools would set aside their differences and start working together isn’t exactly unheard of. It’s happening now in cities around the country. In some cases it’s been going on for years.

But it’s still rare enough that it’s often portrayed as a man-bites-dog story, or as a peacekeeping mission by district leaders.

A new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education says states can help make collaboration at the local level more common. They can improve charter school rules and laws. They can run political interference for local district leaders, and use their bully pulpit to highlight success stories. And they can offer extra money to help decentralized, charter-heavy school systems work better for all kids.

The report cites Florida, which has been running a competitive grant program aimed at drawing high-quality national charter networks to its inner cities, as “an early leader in state-led stimulus.”

It also suggests “the time is ripe” for other states to follow suit. Among other things, charter schools enroll an ever-larger share of students (more than 270,000 in Florida, or nearly one in ten public-school students). And Congress just overhauled federal school accountability rules and Charter School Program grants.

“Charter schools are a big and growing part of public education: They are here to stay and their role in public education will only expand,” the report says. “This is a time of profound opportunity. Charter schools and districts cannot do all this themselves.”

Under the revised federal education law, states can use federal funding to keep better tabs on charter school authorizers. In Florida, that means school districts, which sponsor all but a handful of the state’s more than 650 charters.

The report says states can evaluate how the charters in each district perform, and take action against the authorizers “that undermine collaboration by approving and protecting poor-quality charter schools.” (It may be little coincidence that Broward County, the district that rejected one of Florida’s charter school collaboration grants, had been ground zero for charter school closures.) States can also use the money to help districts improve charter school supervision, which might help attract more top-quality charter schools.

Florida has a shortage of “high-impact” charter school networks that target academically struggling communities. The unpredictability of district oversight is often cited as a reason why. The lack of facilities funding and the state’s “double-F” closure law, which requires academically struggling schools to shut down if they can’t improve their letter grades within two years, have also been cited as barriers. State lawmakers have repeatedly floated bills taking aim at these issues, but they’ve never passed.

The report includes some other ideas that might require changes in state law.

  • Requiring transparency in school discipline, to help ensure charter schools don’t use excessive expulsions to unfairly exclude students, or face false accusations of doing so.
  • Allowing charter schools to create weighted admissions lotteries that make disadvantaged students more likely to get a spot in a highly sought-after school. (Florida law already allows them to give preferences to students assigned to academically struggling schools, or to students in certain ZIP codes, such as the neighborhoods targeted by KIPP Jacksonville.)
  • Reworking charter school application appeals. If a district has a track record of working closely with charter schools, approving successful ones, and policing bad ones, its decision to reject a charter school application could be given more weight if it goes before the state Board of Education.

Florida’s grant program has the potential to address some of the barriers without a legislative change. It encourages participating districts to tighten up their authorizing, and offers extra money that can help the new charters find buildings. It’s also helping to defuse charter school politics, as Adam Emerson, the charter school director at the state Department of Education, explains in an interview on CRPE’s blog.

Emerson (who, full disclosure, once served as the inaugural editor of this blog) says it’s “encouraging … to see charter school leaders and school superintendents sit in the same room and get excited about what’s possible.”

He also says: “The point is that two of the biggest school districts in Florida—and the nation, for that matter—wanted to actively recruit and collaborate with high-flying charter school networks in a way that would focus on the needs of our most educationally disadvantaged students.”