Communities Need Districts and Charters to Collaborate More and Compete Less

Human nature often finds us pointing the finger at others, while absolving ourselves of blame. While we often tell students, “When you point a finger at others, three fingers are pointed back at you,” adults, at times, fail to heed their own advice.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the incessant battling between public charters and traditional school districts. While middle-class White people often lament the loss of students in traditional schools, these are the same hypocrites who fled during the White flight or participated in oppressive gentrification and left traditional neighborhood public schools long ago. In Philly, when you want to see a sizable number of White students, you often have to go to the Northeast (a section of the city that once actually tried to secede from Philadelphia) or you have to go to a magnet school (or a gentrified one) that is inaccessible to most Black children.

Often, these charter critics belie the fact that the foundations of many of America’s institutions were never made with the well-being of Black and Brown people in mind. When they blindly defend the status quo, they are often simply and emotionally siding with institutions that were designed to keep Black and Brown folks subjugated. If you haven’t read Nate Bowling’s take on the (mostly White middle class) diatribes against families who choose charters, you should.

Charter school operators are not blameless in the incessant friction. Too often, they shirk responsibility and leadership and aren’t willing to collaborate with district, city, and state leadership to address entrenched issues that districts are struggling with. For example, we don’t need more magnet schools. That is the easiest school to create and manage. But, some charters look like magnet schools—being highly selective in who enters and stays in their schools. What our city needs is more great neighborhood schools that serve Black, Brown, and poor children.

We also need a concerted effort to address systemic issues that plague our communities and negatively impact all our schools. I was dismayed that more charters weren’t vociferously vocal about our state’s horrific school funding inequities that impacted all our schools. And, while many Republicans may be charter friendly, too often, their funding policies are overtly anti-Black.

It was great to see charter schools around the country critique the current administration’s proposed education budget, which called for cuts to Title I and II funding. No matter who sits in office, we should not be skittish about siding on behalf of students and those who serve them well.

But, despite the frayed history between charters and traditional schools, there are ways that adults who view themselves as leaders working on behalf of our youth can come together to address the main issue: Black and Brown children often don’t have access to quality education in their communities.

After a convening of district superintendents, charter leaders, finance experts, and other education leaders, CRPE made the following recommendations for collaboration between district and charter school operators:

While declining enrollment and its consequences for district schools are not the fault of charter schools alone, it is their problem.

●  As long as charters fail to have a credible answer to concerns about harm to districts, they will face a political backlash. For the good of the entire public education system, charters must take an active role in solving the problem of declining enrollment, stranded costs, funding cuts, etc.

Districts must stop scapegoating charters while kicking the can down the road.

●   Blaming charters is a distraction from the central goal: creating more high-quality schools.
●  Districts must take responsibility for addressing enrollment decline and implementing long-term, sustainable solutions. School districts must learn to shrink and make strategic cuts to generate adequate cost savings without removing crucial supports for struggling schools.

While the bulk of the burden falls on districts, charters should take some responsibility for addressing enrollment decline.

●  Districts and charters should explore the possibility of a grand bargain requiring both to make sacrifices. For example, if a district aggressively reduces its fixed costs, charter operators could agree to temporarily limit growth.
●  Or, if a district agrees to publicly identify and stop accumulating and start reducing legacy costs, charter schools could agree to receive per-pupil funding similar to that received by district-run schools. (Philly’s charters get about 30 percent less in per-pupil funding than district schools.)

Charters and districts can partner to advocate for mutually beneficial policy changes at the state level. For example, districts could try new models to help spin off legacy costs, and charters could advocate for the state to grant this flexibility to districts.

While, I don’t necessarily agree with all of the recommendations, I certainly appreciate CRPE continuing to advance the idea that collaboration is a must. Because, at the end of the day, what is needed? Every single child should have access to high-quality education—especially in their own neighborhoods. We should look at great education as a down payment for the reparations owed to Black children. While the promise of 40 acres and a mule to jump-start the marathon to equity was never realized, we know that steps toward equity just won’t happen without a quality education for entire communities, over the course of generations.

And this is why the infighting needs to stop and collaboration must begin. Is your school district collaborating with charter operators? If not, read the full report from CRPE for policy recommendations here.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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