Choosing Excellent Schools – Not Charter Versus District

In the Bay Area, where I live, people either root for the San Francisco Giants or the Oakland Athletics. Not both. In Chicago, you are either a Cubs fan or you root for the White Sox. In New York, it is the Yankees or Mets.

Too often in schools these days, if you support charter schools you are seen as against the school district or even against public schools. Or, if you are a supporter of the district, you are often viewed as anti-charter and against giving educational choices to parents.

But schools are not sports teams. For students, education shouldn’t be a zero-sum game among adults. Labels used by adults can be put aside in favor of better schools for students. In many diverse communities, leaders from local school districts and high-performing charter schools are already coming together to put students first.

Not surprisingly, the players from both sectors are realizing they have the same goals, the same challenges and the same respect for the craft of teaching and the joy of learning. They are replacing the charter-district battleground with common ground over excellent schools for students. Instead of choosing sides, they are choosing excellence.

If we as a nation truly care about real educational opportunities for all children, this move is necessary. Without charters and districts working cooperatively, we can’t produce the quality schools needed for all students to succeed. Excellent charter schools are critical for their rapid innovation and accountability, but we won’t collectively succeed without all schools becoming academically excellent. We need changed behaviors that produce better results.

For me, the common ground has been a long time coming. I’ve lived on both sides. I was a public school teacher and administrator in California and then a district superintendent. Sixteen years ago, I founded Aspire Public Charter Schools, which has grown into a network of 37 schools that have delivered success for California students and expanded into Tennessee last fall.

Five years ago, I joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given me the opportunity to spend time with successful educators and entrepreneurs around the U.S. Some of them are pushing to improve the system from the inside; some pushing from outside. But they share the same goal of providing much richer opportunities for all students.

The charter school movement is now more than two decades old. There are more than 6,000 charter schools enrolling about 2.3 million students in 40 states, with two more states expected to open charters soon. The majority of charter students are children of color from disadvantaged families.

In cities such as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, charters enroll a substantial percentage of the district’s students. In a few others, such as Seattle, there are not yet any charter schools.

Charter schools have produced some amazing success stories and have certainly provided plenty of proof points that all students can learn at very high levels. YES Prep, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools and Aspire Public Schools are producing results at scale and stand ready and willing to work side-by-side with their school district colleagues.

Increasingly across the country, political and education leaders are coming together to focus on performance, not platitudes. Instead of charters versus districts—us versus them—the emphasis is on producing excellence through district-charter cooperation. In places such as Denver and Spring Branch, Texas, cooperation comes relatively easily, and districts and charters are agreeing to very public compacts. Other communities are offering students a portfolio of educational opportunities—a mix of charters and traditional schools. Some states and districts are hiring accomplished educators who have had success in charters. Some districts are offering space for charters to co-locate with traditional schools, and others are providing student services to charter schools.

In Lodi, Calif., for example, the district has been implementing some of the instructional methods developed by Aspire Public Charter Schools. “We can learn from each other,” says Bill Huyett, the superintendent of the Lodi Unified School District. “Some good, friendly competition can be good for the system.”

The charter-district landscape is changing, but it is hard to predict how rapidly cooperative behavior will become the new normal. About 10 percent of students in Denver, for example, attend charters, and the district mostly thinks of charters as part of the community portfolio of schools.

But there are other places where charter-district relations aren’t likely to thaw any time soon. In my hometown of Philadelphia, nearly a quarter of the students attend charters, which are too often seen as outside the system and antagonistic to it.

My hope is that increasing numbers of communities will move beyond their reluctance to have a collective conversation about quality education. If we are committed to all kids, the players have to come together.