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Rethink the charter and district debate: The middle ground

Kansas City skyline with school buses

The Kauffman Foundation takes the side of students in the district/charter tug-of-war.

Attention on Missouri’s education system has recently centered on the hiring of a new State Commissioner of Education. The potential hiring of a “charter expansion” proponent from outside Missouri has resurfaced the all-too-familiar battle lines around school choice, charter schools, and public schooling – effectively camouflaging issues that impact students, families, and educators.

The Kauffman Foundation has decided to publicly take a side in the “district vs. charter” exchange. Our position defines how we prioritize and award grants in education, which totaled approximately $40 million in 2017 and will be of a similar magnitude in 2018. It is important to be clear about the primary focus for those dollars and why.

We are taking the side of students – investing in the students of the Kansas City metro area – independent of whether they attend a district, charter, or a hybrid of both approaches. We recognize the implications of this decision.

Advocates who have chosen a strong position on the issue will be challenged by (and often suspicious of) our approach. They may dislike where the Foundation’s support is channeled and be skeptical of our intentions. However, we continue to remind people that our focus is on student academic and life outcomes, the educators who help students reach those outcomes, and community-informed systemic approaches that allow those educators and students to excel and achieve.

The Kauffman Foundation’s long history of educational support is focused almost exclusively in the Kansas City area. Since charter schools have a prominent place in the Kansas City Public School system (and we started the Ewing Marion Kauffman charter school in 2011), the Foundation is automatically engaged in the often-bifurcated conversation around district and charter schools.

The idea that “charter expansion” in Missouri will result in better outcomes over time for the nearly 900,000 students attending public schools across the state is naïve. At best that concept seems to be a relic from an ideological playbook on education markets that was already dusty when I helped launch the Missouri Charter Public School Association (MCPSA) in 2006.

Equally misplaced is the belief that charter schools represent an insidious agenda to “privatize” public education and create profit-making opportunities for operators. That is a notion that surprised me a decade ago considering the relatively small and diminishing number of private operators. Like conspiracy theories generally, that mindset is an easy crutch for people who don’t actually spend much time around students, families, or educators in and across both district and charter schools.

The idea on both sides of the aisle/issue that “charter expansion” spells victory or doom one way or the other is a false premise that distracts from the broader imperative – whether the schools we have are preparing all students for education, work, and life once they are no longer in those schools.

The reality is that parents and students (and often teachers) do not care whether they are in a district school or a charter school. They enroll and work, respectively, in schools in both sectors and just want the best possible environment to see success for students. When people speak out against public school choice, I wonder how many families benefitting from a charter option they have talked with before taking their firm stand and suggesting that option be taken away from them. Similarly, when wholesale criticism of school districts is lobbed in favor of dismantling existing systems for across-the-board charterization, I wonder if the people advocating for that position have set aside their outrage and examined the practical implications of their ideals on millions of actual students and families.

We can have active conversations toward progress and successful impact but we all must continue to learn. Our students deserve educators, leaders, philanthropists, and advocates who are constantly learning. We will make mistakes, but we should seek to make only new mistakes – not continue to make the same ones. We should learn from those mistakes, adapt, and make progress together.

Our students deserve an earnest and nuanced approach, which requires hard work, creativity, compromise, and the humility to keep learning together. The Kauffman Foundation will continue to find ways to support both districts and charter schools in this evolutionary process.

We are grateful to the friends, colleagues and those who often disagree with us for contributing their thoughts and ideas on a regular basis to help us continually identify the best ways to make philanthropic investments in the interests of students and those who work on their behalf. The Kauffman Foundation welcomes your feedback in the comments here, or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.