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What Should the Relationship Be Between Charter Schools and District Schools?

Posted by Jennifer Berkshire on Jun 21, 2016


In the original vision for charter schools, the idea was that charter schools would basically function as Petri dishes, developing new knowledge or practices, which could then be adopted by traditional public schools.  

However, it's harder and harder to find examples where that's what's happening. What you see more and more of is an expanding charter sector that competes with the district for students and resources. That original vision, where charters would be a laboratory of innovation and then export their best practices back to the district, isn’t what's happened. Instead you have a competitive, often strained relationship. 

In some cities it looks like charters will eventually replace the district, or at least dominate within the district. If that's going to be the case, it raises a whole other set of questions. This is one question where I feel like it's hard to find places that have really resolved this tension. It's hard to meet the demand that parents have for more choices, while at the same time taking care of kids who, for whatever reason, are not going to exercise that choice.


It’s really complicated. You have a few different things going on. One is that we're living through a period of intense anxiety about the future. Parents are tremendously concerned about what lies ahead for their kids, and so they are making the very rational decision to just pursue what they see as the best choice possible. Then you have an education conversation that's really dominated by people who believe that whatever ails our public systems, the answer is in making them function more like a market. The market answer is to treat families more like consumers and provide them with more choices.

These choices aren't made in a vacuum. Our cities are highly unequal places. If you're in Boston, you know that Boston is now the most unequal city in America. This idea of people picking and choosing and chasing quality, as reform advocates often refer to it, is happening in a landscape where people don't bring the same sorts of options to making that choice. Which presents us with a difficult and often unacknowledged question: Is our goal to lift everybody up, or is our goal to just offer people as much choice as possible even though you're going to leave a whole bunch of kids behind as a result?

Newark is an example where the charter sector has expanded really dramatically. Charters there have achieved some great results, but the architects of this transition never thought to ask the question, what happens to the kids who aren't going to be attending charter schools? It's now widely accepted that the kids who did not end up in the “high-performing seat,” as charter advocates like to call them, have fared badly. Their schools have fewer resources and more kids with higher needs.

You're starting to hear many more charter advocates acknowledge that this is a big issue. If the goal is to really expand charter schools, then the question of what happens to the schools that aren't going to be part of that, and the kids who are in those schools, has to be part of that conversation from the beginning. The idea that you're going to have 60 percent of your students, or 40 percent of your students in schools that have fewer resources but are having to attend to kids with higher needs, that's an impossible scenario. There's no one who really thinks that's an ideal outcome.

The worst-case scenario is that you just have these two sectors that are now completely different and are at war with each other. What we've ended up with here is a new set of problems that weren't envisioned when all of this started. So far, we're stuck in the part of the debate where there hasn't been a lot of acknowledgement that we have this new set of problems. I feel that starting to change, and that opens up this question: What are we going to do about it? If we have these two systems, and having them compete against each other on unequal ground is not an ideal outcome, what are the other options?

Topics: Charter Schools

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