Putting Aside Differences: Charter-District Collaboration in Minneapolis and Beyond

Over the past few weeks, the growing animosity between different education organizations and advocates regarding the merits of charter versus traditional district schools has dominated the news cycle.

Last week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), released a report which concluded that “even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in communities that serve all children.” The week prior to the release of the NAACP’s report, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized charter schools and other forms of school choice, calling them “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

The NAACP report and Weingarten’s remarks elicited a lot of criticism. Jeanne Allen, Founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, called for Weingarten’s resignation and Nina Rees, CEO and President of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), issued a statement asserting that the NAACP’s report failed to “acknowledge that Black parents are demanding more and better public-school options.”

Hope in a Time of Tension: Charter-District Collaboration Compacts

The tension between traditional district and charter public schools is not new and will likely continue to be a popular news topic. However, in recent years, a growing number of districts and charter schools have put aside their political differences and worked together in order to do what’s best for students.

According to a recent report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), since 2010, twenty-three cities, including Minneapolis, have signed District-Charter Collaboration Compacts. In fact, Minneapolis was one of the original eight cities in 2010 to sign a Compact, which were designed to address issues, like equitable funding and facilities, that have often led to tension between the traditional district and charter schools.

The report detailed “tangible benefits” from some of the Compacts, which include more high-quality seats for students, more streamlined information and systems, sharing “burdens” like professional development, and reduced political tensions.

However, the report found that only a handful of the Compact cities have thriving collaborative relationships between the district and charter sectors. Rather, most of the Compact cities have basic relationships, meaning the districts might have a relationship with one or two charters or they are still working on building trust.

What About Minneapolis’ Compact?

According to the report, as of June 2016, Minneapolis’ Compact has “lost ground” with “none to little” collaboration between the district and charter schools.

Originally, in December 2010, when Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), six charter schools, seven community organizations, and two former mayors signed the District-Charter Collaboration Compact, they committed to improving the ways that they “work together and influence each other for the benefit of all students in the city, and to ensure that all children have access to high-quality public schools.”

In the Compact, both MPS’ superintendent and the charter school leaders committed to do several things. Some of what MPS’ superintendent committed to are:

  • Support the cross-departmental work that had already been happening at MPS’ now dissolved Office of New Schools to identify ways to make MPS services—transportation, professional development, and professional development—available to charter schools.
  • Continue to provide MPS facilities to high-performing and high potential charter schools, with preference given to the MPS-authorized charters. (MPS became a state-approved charter authorizer in May 2010, but withdrew as an authorizer in June 2016.)
  • Actively share demonstrated MPS best practices with all charter schools in order to scale what works and aid in building capacity.

Similarly, some of the things the charter school leaders committed to are:

  • Serving all students in Minneapolis and “redoubling efforts to recruit, serve, and retain” special education students, English Language Learners, and other underserved student populations.
  • Actively share demonstrated best practices, and participate in communities of practice within MPS in order to scale what works.

However, in 2012, Minneapolis did not receive one of the seven District-Charter Collaboration Compact awards from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which would have provided essential funds to sustain the Compact. According to CRPE, by spring 2014, collaboration between the sectors “had largely dissolved.”

Hiawatha-MPS Collaboration Agreement

In September 2014, MPS and Hiawatha Academies signed a Charter Collaboration Agreement, which was supported by a 2012 Minnesota statute. The goal of the Agreement was to align interests and create an incentive for the collaboration to happen. According to CRPE, this compact lacked the “robust list of signatories and ambitious tone of the first compact” but it “demonstrates a simple and targeted strategy of exchanges.”

In the agreement, MPS offered to include Hiawatha in their enrollment process and to engage in discussion around, among other things, sharing student transportation services, access to MPS’ student athletic facilities, and leveraging economies of scale for purchasing school supplies and/or district services.

In return, Hiawatha offered MPS access to their professional development programs and, if permitted by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), agreed to let MPS include their test scores with MPS’ schools for public reporting and accountability purposes. However, MDE was not able to find a way to implement the shared data reporting, so MPS could not include Hiawatha’s scores with theirs. In the end, the agreement did not amount to much collaboration and last year it was not renewed.

Where is District-Charter Collaboration Thriving?

Even though there is essentially “none to little” district-charter collaboration in Minneapolis, that doesn’t mean that there cannot be any future district-charter collaboration in Minneapolis or other Minnesota cities.

Our next blog post will summarize the cities where CRPE has identified that charter-district collaboration is thriving, as well as key takeaways for Minneapolis and other Minnesota cities. Specifically, the cities we will examine are Boston, Central Falls, Chicago, and Denver.

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