The RSS fund is agnostic about who operates great schools, as long as they are the great schools communities deserve. However, we are pragmatic in how we think change happens.
Though our ultimate goal is district-wide change, most districts are not going to spontaneously make the hard changes required without changes in politics/policy (which is driven by power).
Furthermore, public nonprofit charter growth can play several key roles in helping to drive this change.
While there is variability in the charter sector, there is also a set of high-performing public nonprofit charter operators who have demonstrated transformational results serving predominantly low-income students. These high-performing operators tend to have the same set of freedoms and a core set of design elements. They have also demonstrated that they can replicate across grades PreK-12, throughout a city, and throughout the country. Even the highest-performing charter school models are not perfect at serving all students yet; but they are committed to that goal and they are strongly positioned to continually innovate towards that goal.
These charters serve several critical roles in driving systems change: they add capacity in low-performing districts; they demonstrate what is achievable and how to achieve it; they create pressure for change by their successful presence; and when districts find the political will to change, these charters and other nonprofits can be allies in making change happen.
Yet in many places, high-performing charters face increasing opposition to growth. Some of that opposition is ingrained in existing policies around charter caps, equitable funding, or facilities. In other places, opposition is political and driven by interests threatened by changes to the status quo (who frequently then institutionalize that opposition in policy).
We also believe there are many stakeholders in district schools who want to transform education and who try to draw from the lessons of high-performing charters and other nonprofit education innovators. Unfortunately, across the country’s approximately 14,000 school districts, most district reform efforts are set up to fail. They don’t truly provide the freedom and accountability that charters have demonstrated can result in transformation. In many places, the same policies and politics that inhibit high-quality charter growth are the same policies and politics that prevent great district educators from having the freedom and accountability to operate great schools.
Thanks to a set of charters and other nonprofits, we have strong, promising evidence of what works for schools in educationally underserved communities. Now, we need to remove the systemic obstacles and create the conditions for widespread adoption and scaling – by both charter AND district schools.
Further, if we are sincere in our belief that a crucial catalyst for systems change is empowered parents, we have to recognize that most parents do not care about who operates a great school for their children and community – as long as it is a great school. Parents trapped in failing district schools can be potent forces to drive a pro-charter agenda. However, we cannot assume empowered parents will simply default to a charter agenda – that support has to be earned. It has to be gained through building relationships between reformers and empowered communities in dialogues about the change communities want to see and the roll they see charters serving as a means towards the end of driving whole-district change (and as noted before, this could look different depending on the local context).
Last, charters can only directly grow so fast and so far, and in only so many geographies (usually not rural). Therefore, achieving widespread systems change for most districts must ultimately require directly taking on district policies, politics and power structures so that district schools can adopt charter innovations (with charter support), and over time create further innovations of their own so that all children have the educational opportunities they deserve.