Ending Ohio’s charter-district feud

The infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud is an apt analogy for the history of district-charter school relations in Ohio. Neither side has much liked the other over the years, but it appears that the animosity and acrimony of the recent past is fading. Evidence for a new period of cooperative charter-district relations comes from several remarkable developments.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson shepherded through the Ohio General Assembly legislation that would, among a whole host of innovative reforms, provide high-performing charter schools in Cleveland with local levy dollars to support their day-to-day operations. Building on the momentum coming out of Cleveland, Columbus Superintendent Gene Harris put forth a plan that would share local property-tax money with some of that city’s high-flying charters in the form of grants to enable those schools to help boost the performance of low-performing district schools.

There are other Buckeye State examples. Reynoldsburg City School District has quietly built a portfolio of school options for its residents over the past decade. Now it is opening those options to students from other districts who might want to attend a Reynoldsburg school through its new open enrollment policy. Further, a group of school districts (including Columbus, Reynoldsburg, and the Dayton Public Schools), educational service centers (including the ESC of Central Ohio and the Montgomery County ESC), and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation have been working over the last two years to build a shared charter school authorizing effort. While legislative language supporting this work has been scuttled twice in two years by the Ohio House, the partners continue to work together for the benefit of kids across their sponsored schools continues.

Obviously, not everyone is a fan of charter-district collaboration. There has been much angst, for example, expressed about the Cleveland plan among some of the state’s most militant charter supporters and union diehards. Yet, Ohio is not alone in the effort to move it charter-district relations forward. In fact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has offered $40 million in competitive funding for cities that commit to what they are calling “Charter-District Collaborative Compacts.” So far school districts and charter leaders in 14 cities have developed and signed such compacts. These cities include Baltimore, Boston, Central Falls (RI), Chicago, Denver, Hartford, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, Rochester, Sacramento, and Spring Branch (TX).

In these cities neither side is surrendering to the other. Rather, according to Don Shalvey, deputy director of US programs for the Gates Foundation, both sides are “committed to quality for every student, expanded public school choices and a ‘can do’ spirit that honors teachers and the youngsters they serve.”

These district-charter compacts build on the notion of school governance where mayors, superintendents and/or other authorities have employed a “tight-loose” system of school management. This means “tight” on results but “loose” on means and day-to-day school management. Charter schools are, by intent and design, supposed to be free of many regulations and rules that burden traditional public schools. These essential freedoms include:

  1. Freedom over school finances;
  2. Freedom over school staffing and personnel decisions;
  3. Freedoms over school calendar; and
  4. Freedom over curriculum and instruction.

In return for these operational freedoms, however, charters are to be held accountable for their academic performance, fiscal health, and operational results. Those schools that deliver are not only free to operate innovative programs, but are encouraged to grow and expand their efforts. Both charter and district partners commit to replicating high-performing models of traditional and charter public schools while improving, driving out, or closing down schools that poorly serve students. Decisions are driven by performance as opposed to politics or institutional interests.

In charter-district compact cities high-performing charter schools can garner access to district facilities and in some cases even local funding. School districts benefit from these partnerships because their academic ratings can increase from the inclusion of test scores from high-flying charter partners. In some compact cities district-charter partners commit to working together on shared concerns like measures of effective teaching, implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and transportation issues.

Feuds die hard. But for the sake of the kids and the grandkids, even the Hatfields and McCoys found peace. Children across Ohio will benefit if charters and school districts can end their feud and find ways to maximize resources across their schools, share expertise and talent, and work together to break-down barriers to more quality school choices.  

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