Redesigning School Districts: The Way Forward

April 28, 2014

“I think charter schools are great, but they only serve a handful of kids.  If we’re ever going to really close the achievement gap at scale, we need to focus on the real work of fixing school districts.”

How often have charter advocates (like me) heard this response from friends and allies? These friends and allies believe charters have successfully proven that it’s possible to create high-performing public schools in high-need neighborhoods, but now charters need to step aside so that their practices and systems can be taken to scale by enlightened district leaders.

There are two fundamental flaws with this point of view.  First, it is generally anchored in a great man/woman theory of change, whereby a visionary superintendent is able to fully and forever change the dysfunctional bureaucratic culture of an entire school district.  Such thinking ignores the “three-years-and-out” pattern of employment among most urban district superintendents.  It also, disregards the “this-too-shall-pass attitude” of tenured teachers and entrenched administrators.

Second, the acolytes of district reform don’t focus on the twin obstacles to effective and sustainable change:  politics and collective bargaining.  Applying sound management practices to a large, multi-site, people-intensive organization is hard enough when leadership has the freedom and authority to create and execute a clearly defined reform strategy.  Doing so in an environment where change must be negotiated with powerful unions and ultimate control rests with an ever-changing cast of politicians and school board members, is next to impossible.

But the district reformers have a point:  in too many places, the charter sector is a mixed bag in terms of performance, with limited capacity to scale quickly.  The large majority of students are still being educated in district schools, so what is to be done for them while we wait for new charters to form and for existing (high-quality) charters add one new school at a time — often one grade at a time?  Compounding the problem is that the politico-bureaucratic inertia that makes improving districts so challenging, also makes it difficult to “right-size” a school system that is gradually losing students and resources as charters grow.  The result is an annual series of budget cuts and a growing chorus of complaint from district employees and parents of district-school students that charter schools are forcing their schools into a downward spiral.

So, what is to be done?

In several cities around the country, we are beginning to see a path forward.  Specifically, district superintendents, state education commissioners, and mayors, in partnership with one another and with charter operators and local and national funders, are developing new systems for breaking down the walls that separate the district and charter sectors, and that reorganize central offices to empower individual schools – both district and charter, alike.  This isn’t a veiled attempt to co-opt and regulate the charter sector, in order to “level the playing field” (i.e., force charters to live with all of the dysfunction that district schools suffer under).  Instead, it is an effort to liberate all schools from the dead-weight of central management, in exchange for a results-based system of accountability.

Some of the practical steps that are being taken include the design of “universal enrollment systems” in places like New Orleans, Newark and Washington, DC, whereby all students are entered into a common lottery in which each child receives a single offer of admission from a school that his or her parent has chosen, whether district or charter.  Other variations on the theme designate charter schools as the default neighborhood school, with an “opt-out” provision for parents who want to send their child to a different school.

Giving parents choices among all of their options requires comparable information about school performance.  To that end, districts like Denver, New York, and Newark produce common report cards that provide the same data and ratings for all schools, whether district or charter.

Another strategy is to partner with charter operators to take over or replace low-performing district schools, either in whole or in part, and “restart” them as charters, with enrollment priority for those students who previously attended the failing district school.  In exchange, the charter schools can lease or buy the school building, a precious commodity for any growing charter operator.  Tennessee’s Achievement School District provides these charter operators with an indefinite “right-to-use” such buildings at no cost.  Even when a charter school is not directly replacing a low-performing district school, some districts, like New York, have helped find space for charter operators in underserved communities.

At the same time these districts are working more closely with charter operators, they are also creating new opportunities for more traditional district schools to enjoy similar levels of autonomy and accountability, especially as part of a turnaround strategy for the lowest performing schools.  Through student-weighted funding formulas, school accountability agreements, performance contracts with outside operators, and “innovation zones,” some central offices are gradually shifting management responsibilities to school leadership, while restructuring (and shrinking) their organizations to focus on basic infrastructure, optional support services, and accountability.  At the same time, they have negotiated union contracts that allow them to waive most work rules in these autonomous schools, while empowering their principals with the authority to hire the teachers they want, rather than those who are assigned to them.

To date, there are still only a few districts that are moving purposefully towards a diverse portfolio of autonomous and accountable schools, and most of these still have a long way to go before they have fully redesigned their public education systems.  Nevertheless, these initial steps are creating a new model of systemic reform that promises to sustainably transform public education in high-need urban communities.