Reframing the District-Charter Narrative

Our report, Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment, takes an honest look at an urgent problem that has long divided education leaders. To help inform and advance a thoughtful discussion, we invited a number of experts to share their views on this complex and politically charged issue.

The latest report from CRPE, Better Together, reinforces the need for the charter sector to figure out how to work with school districts and their elected leaders more effectively. While impending challenges to charter school expansion—and progress in education reform in general—are considerable, there are also lots of places where local people are engaged in constructive work already. To leverage more of what is working, we may want to reframe the challenge more broadly to include communities outside cities and schools that are not operated by charter management organizations (CMOs).

The discussion CRPE hosted reflects the experience of many urban locales with large CMO operators. These locales garner the most attention in the charter world, but are not necessarily representative. New York and Colorado have charter sectors of roughly similar scale, but try googling news coverage of their charters and you will see that our attention tends to represent the size of media markets, not charter scale. Nevertheless, people working with charter schools in non-urban settings or in independent charter schools must deal with the urban politics captured so well in CRPE’s report. Independent charters and those outside urban settings actually constitute the majority of charter schools, but high-profile conflicts in big cities frame the whole sector.

The report’s observations reflect the inevitability of dealing with the political interests and substantive concerns of school districts and their leaders. It is worth noting that the charter sector is also inevitable—in its own way. While individual charter schools may close, charters in general do not face existential threats from their opponents. Instead, established charter schools and district leaders fight over resources and regulations affecting their current schools, but these fights spill into debates over hypothetical charter schools that might come online later. What may also be inevitable is people running today’s charter and traditional schools considering whether to restrain future charter growth as a remedy to competition for students and resources.

Taking lessons from locales where the conflict has been a little bit less harsh might yield more models that we can work with. To date, the charter sector’s primary political and implementation strategies sought to avoid district politics. But more than 50 percent of charter schools are authorized by districts. These schools could never ignore district concerns. Now that the charter market has grown, there are very few communities in which charter advocates can ignore the interests of the school system. Future conversations should reflect the full breadth of affected communities and schools.

Thanks to CRPE for jump-starting this dialogue.

Alex Medler is senior director at Safal Partners.


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