A new year brings a new chance for district-charter collaboration

Peter Cunningham recently called district-charter collaboration the “great unfilled promise” of school choice. He explains the possibilities by pointing to a host of cities that are already benefiting from collaboration: In New York City, districts and charters are partnering to improve parent engagement. In Rhode Island, charters are sharing with district schools their wealth of knowledge on how to personalize learning effectively. Boston has district, charter, and Catholic schools working together on issues like transportation and professional development and has successfully lowered costs for each sector. The SKY Partnership in Houston is expanding choice and opportunities for students. The common enrollment system in New Orleans has solved a few long-standing problems for parents (like issues with transparency), and partnerships in Denver have set the stage for even more innovation. Though the type and extent of collaboration differs in each of these places, the bottom line is the same: Kids benefit.

Here in the Buckeye State, there are thousands of kids in need of those benefits. Our most recent analysis of state report card data shows that within Ohio’s large urban districts (commonly known as “the Big Eight”), proficiency rates were far below the state average in fourth- and eighth-grade math and ELA. Each of these districts has a significant population of disadvantaged students similar to those that the district-charter partnerships in other cities are serving well. It stands to reason that district-charter collaborative models would greatly improve both the opportunities for and the outcomes of Ohio students.

But things in the Buckeye State are a bit more complicated. For starters, Ohio charters don’t have access to the same resources that charters in other states do, and that’s led to some serious squabbling about who’s stealing from whom. A 2016 survey of Ohio charter principals found that the biggest barriers to growth included lack of funding, trouble securing facilities, and a lack of district cooperation on issues like transportation and student records. Districts, meanwhile, claim that they’re the ones who are being shortchanged. Working to reform funding and access to facilities could go a long way toward making the sectors more amenable to collaboration.

But even with meaningful reform, the tensions between districts and charters in Ohio could remain. After years of being pitted against one other, trust is in short supply. The truth is that there are few tangible incentives for charters and districts to stop finger-pointing and start working together. But if the goal of both sectors is to do what’s best and right for kids, then collaboration can’t remain a pipe dream. When districts and charters continue to operate in silos, kids pay the price.

Fortunately, Cleveland’s existing district-charter partnership is a positive sign of what could be in the Buckeye State. Plans were initiated back in 2012 with the Cleveland Plan, and by 2014, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) began to engage with local charters in earnest. The city became a "Gates Compact City" in 2014—charters and the district signed a pledge to “improve collaboration and work toward shared goals” and were provided with a planning grant to support their work. Progress has continued since, and the Cleveland Education Compact now boasts subcommittees in which district and charter school leaders work jointly on issues like professional development, special education, policy/advocacy/funding, and enrollment and record sharing. No partnership is perfect, and CMSD and its charter partners will certainly have their ups and downs as they determine how best to collaborate moving forward. But the willingness from both groups to work together is worth acknowledging, and their collaborative model is worth considering in other Ohio cities.

Many folks in Ohio didn’t think charter reform could ever become a reality, but in 2015, the Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 2, a comprehensive reform bill with provisions designed to incentivize higher performing authorizers, charter school boards, and management companies. Despite the short time frame, we’ve already started to notice the charter sector changing for the better. With these comprehensive reforms under our belt and $71 million in CSP funds waiting in the wings, 2017 could be a good year for Ohio charter schools. A good year would certainly be welcome. But a great year would be even better—and a great year becomes far more possible if Ohio can solve the problem of limited collaboration between districts and charter schools. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.