One of the first educational leaders to call for autonomous, self-governed “schools of choice” was Al Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. This fact is often forgotten in the contentious debate around charter schools today.
Shanker supported this new idea because he saw charters as an opportunity for talented principals and teachers to free themselves from the rigidity of central office bureaucracy and directly run their own schools. He envisioned charters as laboratories of innovation, where a district’s most vulnerable students would get individual attention and where teachers would be free to try new methods—and all these fresh new ideas would rub off on traditionally run schools and yield results that would inspire lasting change.
Charter critics often dismiss Shanker’s vision of collaboration because the debate is consumed by an “us versus them mentality” and the baseless notion that charters exist solely to “privatize” education, destroy unions and drain traditional schools of money and motivated students. Those opponents should be delighted to learn that Shanker’s vision is alive and well in district-charter partnerships across the nation:
- More than 20 public school districts across the country, including the large urban districts of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, Philadelphia and Nashville have entered into “compacts” with charter organizations in which district leaders collaborate with their charter neighbors around professional development for teachers and systems to measure student success.
- In South Los Angeles, the teacher-founders of Synergy Academies charter network hold workshops in which they host educators from other schools and they share their “Trade Secrets” around school culture, teaching fluency, and lesson pacing. All three Synergy schools, which are focused on STEM learning, are intentionally co-located within traditional Los Angeles Unified district schools.
- In Aldine, Texas, the district is collaborating with YES Prep charter schools to develop a shared college- and career-counseling program at a co-located high school. They are also working together to address equity issues that can fuel tensions between district and charter schools, such as funding and facility access, and whether charter schools are open to all students. The Aldine superintendent said she expects both staffs will meet and and learn from one another… “getting not just that competitive environment but collaborative environment to meet the needs of our kids.”
- In San Jose, California, the Franklin-McKinley district developed a partnership that calls for its 17 traditional schools and seven charters to share campuses, student data and teacher training. This includes a fellowship for teachers and principals who are launching or re-creating schools and a peer-coaching program that pairs teachers from charters and traditional schools. The data exchange would help ensure traditional and charters alike serve an equitable mix of students – and address the common complaint from critics that charters “skim” higher-performing and highly motivated students while under-enrolling special-education students.
- In Spring Branch, Texas, charter school leaders are helping train district teachers and principals. District schools are opening up their band and sports programs to charter students, and both charters and district schools agreed to share data. “We can advance the ball a lot further if we’re not at each other’s throats,” a charter leader said.
While these partnerships are promising examples, they still don’t represent the norm for charters and neighborhood schools. Too often, the political rhetoric surrounding charter schools is so toxic that district and neighborhood educators feel uneasy meeting with “the enemy” — much less acknowledging they may be able to learn from each other.
That’s a tragedy. True to Al Shanker’s original vision, the great majority of the nation’s 6,000 charter schools are local, educator- and community-based nonprofits. Many of them are running innovative programs that prepare growing numbers of students for success in college and life. Our children, our educators, and our nation would be better served if ideologues on both sides turned down the rhetoric and encouraged all educators to work together more often.