Is it possible to have strong public schools and choice?

Education clearly has not escaped the partisan polarization that has long besieged so many issues in America. Still, when The Line polled school administrators and our social media followers about choice, we weren’t sure what kind of response we’d get. We knew certain words or phrases associated with choice would be more incendiary than others so with that in mind, we asked this simple question:

POLL: Can there be strong public schools & choice?

Respondents were pretty evenly split in their answers.

Of 2,806 total responses:



Is it possible to have strong public schools and choice?

We asked the same question of three education leaders: Desmond Blackburn, Ph.D., Superintendent, Brevard County, Florida Public Schools; Sydney Chaffee, 2017 Teacher of the Year and teacher at Boston’s Codman Academy; and Richard Barth, CEO, KIPP Foundation.

Here’s what they told us.

As a public charter school, Codman has certain autonomies, like flexibility in schedules, hiring and curricula. The premise of this system is that charter schools will take advantage of our increased autonomy to innovate. In theory, when charter innovations result in positive student outcomes, we disseminate these practices and more students in all educational settings benefit.

In practice, however, I have found that the most positive and exciting outcomes for students result from collaboration among schools, rather than a one-way sharing of best practices. For example, I recently participated in the Boston Educators Collaborative (the product of a collaboration between the Boston Compact and Teach Plus), which brought together teachers from the city’s district, charter and parochial schools. These five-week courses provided forums for teachers to work together and solve shared problems of practice, strengthening our understanding of how much we have in common.

It makes sense that school choice is a controversial issue. Depending on where we come from, “school choice” has wildly different consequences for students. But experiences like mine tell me that school choice and strong public schools can coexist. We all care about students. We all want to make sure students have access to a high-quality education where they are supported in achieving their dreams. Until we come to consensus about what we mean by choice, a civil, productive conversation about which system will best support all of our students will elude us.

In Denver, the school district has created a collaborative council with local charter schools and built a system where parents can easily enroll in the school of their choosing — whether it is a public charter or district school. Denver Public Schools also share facilities and tax revenues with charter schools, including five KIPP Colorado schools, to allow more resources to flow to public school students. And this approach is working. Between 2010 and 2015, as enrollment in charter schools in Denver grew by 80 percent, test score results in district schools stayed steady and even grew. The end result? More Denver kids are going to more good public schools.

And the benefits of district-charter collaborations aren’t just limited to big urban school systems. In rural Arkansas, KIPP Delta is launching the Delta College Attainment Network (DCAN), a program that builds on existing partnerships with local high schools to provide support for students on the path to and through college. Through DCAN, the KIPP Through College program will expand at two neighboring district schools, Central High and Cross County High, so more students can receive targeted help applying to college and obtaining financial aid. The results of the partnership so far are promising. At Cross County, school officials have seen the college-going rate double since launching its program three years ago, and at Central, the collaboration with KIPP Delta has resulted in 95 percent of seniors applying to college.

We are still in the early stages of learning how charters and traditional public schools can collaborate, but the future is promising. This year public schools of all type — traditional and charter — have come together to make the case for investing public dollars in education. Both traditional public schools and charter schools have advocated for federal, state and local programs that strengthen all public schools, such as initiatives to help schools recruit and train high-quality teachers and federal funding for special education and Title I. We’ve also seen leaders of traditional and charter public schools raise their voices in support of young people, assuring access to higher education for low income families and those protected by the DREAM Act.

From where I sit, it is clear that in communities across the country, high-quality public charter schools are delivering results for students and advocating alongside traditional public schools for investments that are important for us all. So instead of asking whether choice and public education are at odds, let’s ask what we can do to expand and strengthen both. To me the better question is, “How many children woke up in America today and headed off to a great public school? And how can we work together to make sure more of them do?”

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This quote was interesting to me because it simultaneously broadens the scope of considerations about what “choice” in education potentially means, while also narrowing the focus to an individual student’s interests & needs. Too often the political & media dialogue instead focuses largely on funding, facilities, & regulations.
It seems to me that the proliferation of private and charter schools is perhaps less about where the money goes (although that’s obviously important to operate), and more about the “traditional high school model” still being adequate for some, but not personally as relevant for most, in our world today. Parents & kids are seeking different models, for their own various reasons, and some have given up on waiting for the traditional institution to change from 6 or 7 classes each day, bells every 45 to 55 minutes, passing periods and 22 minutes for lunch, 2 semesters a year, course enrollment access driven by age v. interest & ability, credit via seat time & tests, etc., etc.
As the author suggests, “choice” in public education is just as much about program interests, schedules, calendars, and career goals– as it is about the public-private-charter debate about where our tax monies go that we typically hear.
Maybe if we broaden the scope of choices in public education, and better align the best features of successful models whether public, private, or charter, not only would the passions around the politics calm down somewhat, but also maybe current students might actually see teaching as a challenging, creative, and flexible profession in greater numbers again.
We can only hope.

What is needed for CHOICE to thrive, within our public schools and districts?

I would suggest, in addition to the points below, that a common understanding regarding what is meant by 'choice' is also necessary. Achieving a common understanding requires engaging in civil discourse.

More than 40 percent of our students get their education at a school other than their assigned school

Wow. I wonder how that figure compares across the country.

Can you name another profession where after a 20-year absence a person could speak to the issues with relative ease?

This anecdote is compelling, yet not surprising. While the jargon is the same, the students and social setting have changed. How does today's climate impact this conversation?

This is a great article that highlights “CHOICE” from all directions. I have worked in/with charter schools and legislators for over 15 years and in many states. If there were more Superintendents like Brevard County, which was one of my districts in Florida, and more forwarding thinking and collaboration like in Denver the possibilities would be endless in K-12 education. It’s the districts that are still in the mind set of “they are taking our students” that really need to understand that it’s happening, will continue to happen & it’s ok and working together for the same common goal intensifying & refining it for the greater good along the way, that’s the beauty of this relationship & is what makes it so amazing!!

I have found that the most positive and exciting outcomes for students result from collaboration among schools, rather than a one-way sharing of best practices.

Sydney's comment about collaboration among schools generating positive outcomes, sparked a connection about ways to identify common ground. Perhaps situating civil discourse in the context of joint sweat equity, by walking in another's shoes for a day to solve problems could be a meaningful method for finding common ground.