This week is National Charter Schools Week, a time to shine a light on public charter schools. In Washington, D.C., where I lead the sole charter school authorizer, a mixture of collegial cooperation and healthy competition has allowed public charter schools and the traditional district schools to push each other to better academic outcomes.
This isn’t the case everywhere in America. In too many cities, public schools and public charter schools are pitted against each other—usually by cynical adults—in a fight for taxpayer dollars, facilities and other resources. D.C. has benefitted from a different mindset, driven in large part by city leaders who have embraced new thinking about how schools should be run and have made quality a top priority. As a result, the district’s public schools have gone from some of the worst in the nation to the fastest improving.
Even as district and charter leaders strive to cooperate wherever possible, we recognize that healthy competition between public and public charter schools benefits the students we serve. Public charter schools exist to allow different ways of teaching, of organizing staff, of engaging with parents, of allocating resources, and of defining their school’s culture and values. As each school strives to do its best for students, some show strong academic successes and are flooded with students. Others have weak results and are underenrolled, pressing them to refine their methods and adapt.
The trick now is to embrace charter and district cooperation in areas where that is beneficial, while still maintaining the healthy competition that pushes schools in each sector to do better. Here are a few ideas based on our experience in D.C.
- Share learning strategies to make the schools even better. Assessment scores and graduation rates have been going up for both public and public charter students in D.C. One reason for success is that D.C. public schools and public charter schools are inspiring and challenging each other to keep getting better. Schools have long shared their best ideas, but we can be more deliberate and systematic about this—to keep our test scores and graduation rates climbing, to improve school climate without resorting to suspensions and expulsions, to find ways to reduce teacher burnout and attrition and so much more.
- Second, continue improving equity in education. While we’re proud of rising achievement in D.C. schools, we know there are still large racial disparities—both academic and disciplinary—that must be narrowed. The School Equity Reports that D.C. education leaders collaborate to produce each year have put important topics—such as suspension rates—on school leaders’ radar. This has led to three consecutive years of declining suspension and expulsion rates citywide. States and cities can take this further by adopting common report cards that hold all public and public charter schools to the highest standards of academic excellence and educational equity.
- Work together to recruit highly-qualified teachers. D.C. for many years was a place where teachers didn’t want to work. As the quality of our schools has improved, so has our reputation among prospective teachers. But maintaining a pipeline of talented teachers is a constant struggle, especially as D.C. faces the challenge of a continually growing enrollment. Public charter school networks have come up with innovative ways to train and retain great teachers—sometimes from nontraditional teaching pathways—while school districts tend to offer envious benefits packages. Are there ways to learn from each other and work together to attract and train a highly qualified and diverse teaching force? If we can, all students would benefit.
- Locate schools—whether district or charter—in places that are accessible to students and parents, and make it easier for public charter schools to use buildings (or parts of buildings) that are going unused. When public charter schools want to open or expand in a certain neighborhood, but can’t find the space to do so, students miss out on great options or end up traveling farther than necessary to get to school. With better district-charter cooperation on school location, more families will have great options within their reach.
- Districts and public charter schools should cooperate to ensure that every student can get to and from school free from danger, harassment or other issues that might dampen their enthusiasm for going to school. In D.C., many parents are stepping up to make streets safe for traveling students through programs like Man the Block. Traditional and public charter school educators should present a united front to pressure local leaders to do all they can to make streets safer, particularly around schools.
Bottom line: district and public charter school leaders can set high standards for academic quality and educational equity at all public schools and work together to solve the logistical and operational hurdles that limit students’ access to good schools. By doing that, school leaders can harness the benefits of competition and work together to improve all schools.