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The State of Florida Takes a Leadership Role in District-Charter Collaboration: An Interview with Adam Emerson

The Florida Department of Education has provided two competitive grants to Duval County and Miami-Dade County to foster district-charter collaboration. CRPE research analyst Sean Gill spoke with Adam Emerson, the Florida Department of Education’s charter schools director, about his thoughts on how the collaboration work is progressing.

Gill: For readers not familiar, how would you describe the landscape for the charter school sector in Florida? On the whole, what is their relationship like with school districts?

Emerson: It’s probably helpful to note first that Florida is among those states where charter schools are authorized only by school districts. So charters here have to have a relationship with their local school boards. Each charter-district relationship is different, but we encourage all involved to work together when challenges arise and collaborate in the interest of students.

Gill: What motivated the department to begin a grant program for collaboration compacts? How does it relate to other state initiatives?

Emerson: Our State Board of Education has made it clear that it wants our charter school sector to become one that is more focused on lifting the state’s lowest-achieving and educationally disadvantaged students. As a department of education, we have created incentives through our federal Charter Schools Program grant for charter operators to open schools in high-need areas. We have worked to develop the capacity of district authorizers. But we hadn’t, until now, focused on getting charters and districts to work together to tackle our greatest needs. Charter schools and school districts need to collaborate to surmount the challenges facing our lowest-achieving neighborhoods. But we didn’t launch the Florida District-Charter Collaborative Compact to foster collaboration for its own sake. We wanted to effect systemwide change by harnessing the best of both sectors.

Gill: Miami-Dade and Duval counties received grants. What made their applications stand out to the department?

Emerson: Their applications were very different from one another. The Duval school district wanted to collaborate more with KIPP Jacksonville. KIPP and the district each have systems around teacher preparation and blended learning that appealed to the other. Their plans addressed how to share their best practices while KIPP worked to enlarge its footprint and serve more at-risk students. Miami had no partner when it applied, but it had proposed to work with an established and reputable charter management organization that would create seats and provide support services to inner-city kids. 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.

Gill: Compared to cities in other states with district-charter compacts, it’s fair to say we’re still at the beginning stages of the work. But are you encouraged by what you’re seeing so far? Any surprises?

Emerson: While efforts are early, what’s encouraging is to see charter school leaders and school superintendents sit in the same room and get excited about what’s possible. We also are well aware that many failed district-charter compacts in other cities started out with this sort of eagerness. So we know it will take work and a lot of support to keep this momentum going. Still, we’re beginning to see the fruits of our initial vision.

Gill: Broward County also received a grant, but decided not go forward. Does that speak to the difficult politics surrounding collaboration? Do you have to have a strong local champion?

Emerson: We were excited about Broward’s plan. The district had proposed an effort that was similar in scope to Miami’s. The superintendent wanted to work with a well-established and high-performing charter management organization to open a school in perhaps the district’s most troubled ZIP code and provide at-risk children critical intervention. It was an ambitious proposal, but one the Broward County School Board did not support at that time. So while a strong local champion is, indeed, necessary to make collaboration successful, you still need broad support from all corners of the public school community. Duval and Miami-Dade, after great effort, have gained that support.

Gill: Your program included funds to strengthen district authorizing processes, which Alex Medler mentions as one area for a state role. How does quality authorizing impact collaboration?

Emerson: Strong authorizing is essential to create the conditions for collaboration. If you have no interest in holding yourself accountable for the schools you authorize, then you probably have no interest in collaborating with them. The common denominator of all the major districts that applied to this grant program—and there have been six total—is that they all wanted to enhance their capacity to authorize high-quality charter schools. And most proposed in their applications that they would formally adopt the Florida Principles and Standards of Quality Charter School Authorizing that the department of education, charter authorizers, and charter operators recently developed. And we are starting to see now that the initial collaborative practices that Duval and Miami-Dade are engaged in are spilling over more broadly into other aspects of their relationships with charters.

Gill: Alex also suggests changes to state policy, such as school accountability provisions, that can help foster collaboration. Are any policy changes being discussed in Florida?

Emerson: Florida has a robust accountability system for all public schools, but particularly for charters. Before a charter school can open, an applicant has to address 22 sections of a vigorous model charter school application the department of education has developed. And once operational, charter schools are subject to the same state assessment system as traditional school districts. But charters have an added layer of accountability in Florida’s school report card: two consecutive “F”s means a charter school must close. Accountability can include motivation, too, however. In Florida’s most recent legislative session, we had sought a designation for high-impact charter school networks that would have provided incentives for top-performers to open schools in high-need areas. Some of those incentives included immediate access to facility funding and priority in grant competitions. While our efforts to get these changes in law were not successful this past session, we are hopeful that we can effect these changes in the future.

Gill: Is the department hoping to provide grants to more districts in the future? What would you hope other districts learn from the experiences in Duval and Miami-Dade?

Emerson: At this point, we have no plans to award more grants in the immediate future. But we absolutely do want to expand this compact to other districts. The interest in collaboration is there. Most districts that were eligible for this program had applied. So we are hopeful that the experience in and spotlight on Duval and Miami-Dade can show other districts, as well as our supporters, how joint initiatives between charter schools and school districts can lead not only to shared practices and cooperative projects, but to strong academic outcomes for all students.

To learn more about the role states can play to strengthen partnerships between districts and charter schools, read What States Can Do to Promote District Charter Collaboration by Alex Medler.

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