Shakespeare coined the phrase, “Politics make strange bedfellows,” and in one small Colorado community, charter school and district leaders are demonstrating how collaboration does not have to be so strange. Durango School District 9-R (DSD 9-R) is asking voters to approve $90 million in bonds for school construction and long-deferred maintenance and repairs. It’s not completely unusual that DSD 9R has committed to sharing the proceeds of the bonds with local charter schools, but it’s laudable.
Charters themselves are public schools. The main difference is that they are operated independently of local school districts, with more freedom to design their programs and choose their teachers, but also more accountability. If charters fail—if their students fall too far behind—they are usually closed.
Another significant difference is that traditional district schools operate in buildings owned by the local school district, while charter schools have to find (and usually pay for) their own facilities. Every dollar that a charter spends on construction, or on interest on construction loans is a dollar that cannot go into the classroom to fund teaching and learning.
That’s why what’s happening in Durango this election season is such a big deal. Too often, districts view charter schools with hostility. For a hundred years, with exception of a few private or faith-based schools, school districts were monopolies. They were often the biggest consumer of local taxes and often the largest, or one of the largest, employers in town. Too many don’t take kindly to the entrepreneurial competition that charters schools represent, and neither do teachers unions that rely on dues-paying members to keep union bank accounts full.
Too often, school districts fight anything that would help a charter school, including letting them occupy unneeded or unwanted school buildings, even when the law requires them to do so.
But DSD 9-R is showing how positive collaboration can be for all involved. When Colorado passed its charter statute in 1993 only school districts were able to authorize charter schools and over the years many of them have been increasingly accepted as part of their district. That acceptance along with a combination of the schools’ popularity, performance, and overall enrollment of local students has made it increasingly likely for them to be included in district bond issuances. After all, their students are just as much a part of the community supporting those bonds as is every other student.
But when Colorado later amended its statute to create a statewide authorizer (Charter School Institute or CSI), the acceptance of charter district collaboration on bond elections changed and relationships between charters and CSI authorized districts were much less likely to be positive. While not hostile, they are usually like “ships in the night” having little to do with one another.
All of which makes Durango’s story all the more remarkable – there are three charter schools in town, two authorized by CSI and one by the district, and all three are included in the DSD 9-R bond proposal. Maybe that’s because the DSD 9-R leadership is exceptionally fair minded or altruistic. Maybe it’s because it’s a relatively small community of just 4,700 students total. Or maybe it is because the Durango’s charter school parents could be counted on to do their part, and more, to campaign for its passage.
Over many months, and in the immediate run up to Election Tuesday, charter school parents are involved in planning committees and other volunteer efforts supporting the ballot question. Many have eagerly campaigned, knocking on doors and distributing leaflets. Even if solely motivated by the desire to ensure their kids do not miss out on any new funding, there is no doubt that charter school parents have embraced their partnership with the district. The district has embraced them back because they have worked hard to promote the district’s bond proposal to taxpayers.
We won’t know if this partnership bears fruit until the votes are counted next week. Win or lose, there are lessons to learn. Competition doesn’t have to create a hostile relationship. Even in competition, you can find a win-win if you look hard enough. A student is a student, no matter the model of school they attend. All students are entitled to a safe, healthy and secure schoolhouse.
Nationwide, the charter school community has spent years and millions of dollars trying to help charter schools access affordable capital and low interest rates to build and improve their facilities. But debt is still debt. Servicing debt always takes resources away from children and the charter community needs to continue looking for opportunities to ensure tax dollars designated for public school facilities makes are benefitting both charter and district schools.
For these reasons, more districts and charters should explore ways that collaboration can strengthen opportunities for all students.