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District, charter leaders talk collaboration

Education leaders from across the country met Tuesday in Cleveland to discuss collaboration between traditional district and charter schools. The crowd was limited to CMSD and other organizations that have proved they are serious about addressing the thorny subject.

The Washington-based Center on Reinventing Public Education brought together more than 50 participants from 12 states and Washington, D.C. Sarah Yatsko, senior research analyst for the center, told them they had made the cut.

“You are at a gathering like no other,” she said as the daylong “Bridging the Divide” program opened at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. “You met our criteria, which are quite high.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has enlisted CRPE to monitor and assist collaboration between districts and privately managed but publicly funded charters. The center chose Cleveland as the site of its first nationwide conference on the topic because of the District’s “sustained commitment” to such cooperation since Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon was appointed in 2011.

Gordon walked the audience through the reforms in The Cleveland Plan, a state-approved blueprint that calls for giving all families access to quality education, regardless of the provider.

“We use the language ‘agnostic to form,’ ” he said. “We want good schools for kids.”

The CEO singled out The Cleveland Plan’s establishment of the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, a neutral body formed to hold district and charter schools accountable for performance. He said the community conversation has shifted from District vs. charter to “good vs. poor.”

CMSD shares local tax money with 18 charter partners, including 11 that the District directly sponsors. Cleveland is the only district in the state and one of only a few in the country that shares tax funds with charters.

In 2014, CMSD and Breakthrough Charter Schools received $100,000 from the Gates Foundation to create a coalition known as the Cleveland Education Compact. The District and more than 20 charter schools focus on teacher training, state policy and other issues of mutual interest.

The CRPE conference included morning sessions on Chicago’s development of a common accountability system for all district and charter schools and the challenges that the Uncommon Charter Schools network, with sites in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, has faced in getting the two sectors to unite for professional development and share instructional practices.

In the afternoon, participants explored the question of whether districts should have say in where charter schools locate. They also studied arrangements that allow charter schools to operate programs on district campuses.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, participated in a morning panel discussion with CEO Gordon. The board oversees 118 charter schools in Washington.

Pearson said D.C. district and charter schools have teamed up on projects such as a common lottery that fills classroom seats. He looks forward to possible cooperation on transportation, teacher recruitment and other concerns but acknowledges that the relationship is complicated.

“It’s always difficult,” he said in an interview. “Sometimes it’s difficult just for administrative reasons. Sometimes it’s difficult because you have competing interests.”

Fellow panelist Ahmed Young is executive director of the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation. The mayor authorizes the opening of charter schools in Indianapolis.

Young said district and charter schools must back up talk about collaboration with results.

“When we say we are label agnostic, are we truly label agnostic?” he said during the panel discussion. “The way you test that is our actions.”