Gates pushes charter compacts

The Gates Foundation is making a pitch to Santa Clara County and Sacramento to join the next round of 12 to 15 school districts and high-performing charter schools nationwide that agreeing formally to collaborate. The Foundation is offering $100,000 in negotiations money, plus the possibility of receiving several million dollars to carry out the terms of their compact. But the driving force, Gates Deputy Director Don Shalvey told school board members in San Jose, should be mutual interest – a willingness to work together for their students’ benefit.

If they agree to the idea, Sacramento City Unified and a handful of districts in Santa Clara County, together with the Santa Clara Office of Education, would join Los Angeles Unified as the only participants from California. Last December, Los Angeles joined districts in Baltimore, Denver, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, and Rochester, N.Y., in signing compacts.

Gates’s hope is that districts and high-performing charters – a term left to each locality to define – can work through their suspicions and conflicts. In the Los Angeles compact, charters agreed to share admission and retention data and to enroll more English learners and students with disabilities. Critics have charged charter schools with discouraging special needs students from applying.** LAUSD, in turn, agreed to provide charters with access to low-cost loans that districts and charters are taking, because the state is delaying billions of dollars in payments owed to schools.

As an example of an effective compact, Shalvey cited Denver, which has promised to provide facilities to every high-performing charter as they become available. Charters, in turn, pledged to support the district in closing poorly performing charter schools. But for the most part, Shalvey acknowledged, there has been more talk than action in the months since the compacts were signed.

Shalvey suggested that districts and charters could work together in creating Common Core lesson plans, common data systems, and measures of teacher effectiveness in subjects not covered by standardized tests. High-performing charter schools’ test scores don’t currently count in districts’ accountability measurements. Making that happen is one incentive for working together, he said. Sharing best practices is another.

A former San Carlos School District superintendent, Shalvey is co-founder of Aspire Public Schools, the largest group of charter schools in California, and remains the co-chairman of its board of directors, and so has a special interest in California charters. He is particularly interested in Sac City because of its location in the state capital, where a compact would be visible to state legislators and their staffs, many of whom send their children to local schools. San Jose is becoming a magnet for effective charter schools, including Rocketship Learning, KIPP Schools, Summit Preparatory, which will open two high schools in East San Jose, and Downtown College Prep, which is also opening another high school. Districts in the city by and large have been antagonistic or ambivalent to charters (the largest district, San Jose Unified, just approved only its second charter in a decade), while the county office has approved many on appeal. A compact could create a meeting of the minds.

One district that has embraced charters is Franklin-McKinley, a small elementary district whose students are largely Hispanic and Vietnamese Americans. It has two charter schools now, and Superintendent John Porter is working cooperatively with Rocketship to launch two more. But the district has a declining enrollment, Porter said. “We want to be financially responsible and told other charters, ‘Please let us stabilize financially.’”

But other than Rocketship, charters may not care about the district’s plight and press ahead anyway, he said, implying a compact could attract more charters to apply.

Shalvey had no direct answer for Porter. Under state law, districts and county offices are not allowed to consider financial impact on a school district as grounds for denying a charter.

Shalvey said that districts or regions that sign compacts could apply for several million dollars to implement them. An example might be money to renovate a school for a charter, which would then repay the district on the loan.

** However, some researchers have raised the possibility that charter schools are meeting the needs of special education students without labeling them as such. Macke Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, suggested this might be the case last week during a panel discussion at the Education Writers Association conference.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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