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‘A new way we can organize the public school system’: a Q&A with reform expert David Osborne

In his new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne looks at how large, urban districts that have had to make major changes turned to the charter school sector for inspiration and collaboration.

David Osborne
David Osborne

Both major Twin Cities public school districts are facing some tough realities right now: relatively new leadership faced with multimillion-dollar budget deficits and declining enrollment.

Many families within the districts’ boundaries are exercising school choice by open-enrolling their children in suburban districts or enrolling in charter schools. Since federal and state funding follows students, that means the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public School districts are feeling the financial strain of trying to maintain program and building expenses built for a larger student population.

As district leaders face some tough budgetary decisions in the coming months, local education reform groups are hoping to glean some insight from David Osborne, a nationally renowned education reform expert. In his new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne looks at how other large, urban districts that have had to make major changes turned to the charter school sector for inspiration and collaboration. He’ll be presenting his findings on Nov. 8 at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The event —  which is sponsored by Progressive Policy Institute, Education Evolving and Ed Allies — will include a reception and panel discussion with local education leaders.

In Minnesota, the charter-district divide is still very much alive, limiting the amount of collaboration between these public school educators and leaders. But there are some relatively new initiatives that align with efforts Osborne has seen work, to various extents, in other parts of the country.

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For instance, through its community partnership schools program supported by the teachers union, the Minneapolis district has granted six of its schools greater autonomy in exchange for improved student outcomes. And at the state level, lawmakers adopted legislation to create innovation research zones, whereby select schools will be granted flexibility from state laws and rules.

While these initiatives are still very much in their infancy, Osborne’s book spells out the potential of similar efforts — ones that embrace greater school autonomy, accountability and choice — to support a thriving public school sector. In preview of his Nov. 8 talk, Osborne talked to MinnPost about some of the lessons learned from his reporting that may appeal to a Minnesota audience.

MinnPost: Let’s start with a summary of your new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools.”

David Osborne: The book argues that the fastest improving cities in the country are those that have embraced charters the most aggressively and the most intelligently. That is, chartering can be done well, or it can be done poorly. A lot depends on the authorizers of the charter — the body that gives the school its charter and holds it accountable for performance and closes it if it’s not performing. In some states, those authorizers do a poor job. In some states, they do a good job.

I’ve looked at cities like New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Denver and Indianapolis, where the authorizers do a very good job. Those cities — at least the first three — have pretty much doubled their effectiveness in the last decade by embracing charter schools. So this model of school autonomy, accountability, choice  and different school models for different kids — combined with independent operation of the school by a nonprofit organization — seems to provide the most rapid improvement in the country. So my goal in the book is to get people to understand that charter schools are not just an innovation around the edges of the public school system. They’re actually a new way we can organize the public school system. And in places that have organized the public school system that way, we’re seeing the most dramatic improvement in the country.

MP: What do you find most interesting about how school choice and reform are playing out in Minnesota?  

DO: Minnesota is the pioneer — the first state to do interdistrict school choice, statewide; the first state to do postsecondary options allowing high school juniors and seniors to take college courses and have their high school pay for it; the first state to do charter schools. That’s the thing that, of course, always stands out for most people — that Minnesota is a pioneer. And if you look at how many people are using choice, it’s actually very vigorous in Minnesota. A lot of people are using it. They’re using all three kinds: a lot of interdistrict choice, a lot of postsecondary options, and a lot people using charter schools. The final thing I would say is in the charter sector, Minnesota stands out because it has so many charter schools run by groups of teachers. Probably because of EdVisions, a teacher cooperative that runs a number of these schools, it’s been a real pioneer of teacher-run schools. And I think it’s doing a real service for the rest of the country. I think we need more of those.

MP: Faced with multimillion-dollar deficits, how well equipped do you think the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts are to embrace greater school autonomy?

DO: Normally, deficits will make school districts be more conservative about what they do. But there is a real opportunity. I know they’ve both lost a lot of children to interdistrict choice — to other districts — and to charters. So they probably have a lot of empty seats. Districts that are somewhat entrepreneurial, and not afraid of charters, have shared their building with charters and made money that way. So for example, you have a building with 50 percent of the seats empty. Well, you lease one wing of it to a charter school. You help the charter school because many of them are in inadequate facilities and expensive facilities. And you help the district because you may be bringing in a million dollars a year from the lease. That has been done in New York City. It’s been done a lot in Washington, D.C. It’s been done a lot in Denver. And it can be controversial, but it certainly helps financially, because the thing that hurts these districts when they’re losing kids is the fixed costs — the costs of the building and their legacy pension costs. If you’re willing and you’re creative, you can offset a lot of that cost of the buildings by leasing to charter operators.

MP: Say a school decided to go that route, then do you see that just by proximity there’s greater cross-sector collaboration?

DO: A couple things happen. One, you get the effect of competition, which  tends to spur the district schools to perform better. A study just came out of New York City that looked at, how did the traditional public schools do when a charter colocated  in the same building? The answer was: They improved their test scores. That’s the first effect, and the second is collaboration. Over time, you’ll find — if you look at Washington, D.C., or Denver where a lot of this is going on — if the district has an open attitude about charter schools, the charters are usually very willing to collaborate and to share what they’ve learned, and to learn from the district schools that are doing well. There is this myth, nationally, that charters have not shared what they’ve learned with the traditional districts. But that’s a myth. In many cities, they have. You would be astounded by the amount of collaboration in Denver or Washington, D.C. New York City is a different case because the current mayor is anti-charter. So there was more collaboration; I’m not sure it has continued. But under his predecessor, there was more collaboration. So, yeah, I think you get those secondary effects.

MP: The Minneapolis Public Schools district is piloting something called “community partnership schools,” where schools can apply for greater autonomy in exchange for better results. What advice do you have for leadership on both sides of this arrangement?

DO: Other cities have done very similar things. Sometimes they’re called innovation schools, sometimes they’re called pilot schools, sometimes they’re called turnaround schools. They get different labels. The research that we have done shows that the greater autonomy does help some. So they generally perform a little better than the traditional public schools, but not any near as well as the charter schools. We’ve done that research in Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, and Memphis. Memphis is a special case. Looking into why that is, I think one reason is they generally don’t get as much autonomy as charters do. So some of their principals, over time, get frustrated. Either they weren’t handed enough autonomy, or they were promised it, but then the bureaucracy keeps making it difficult for them to get what they were promised. That happened in Denver, where the superintendent would sign off on an innovation plan for an innovation school. And then the principal would go to put it in motion and say, ‘Well, we need to buy our own textbooks.’ And the purchasing office would say, ‘No, we buy in bulk. You can’t buy your own.’ So some of the principals got quite frustrated. And they lost some good ones that way. Some others organized something called an innovation zone — to get extra autonomy — which is only in its second year, so we  don’t know how well that will work.

The other factors seem to be that they don’t have as much accountability. Districts have trouble closing a failing school when it employs their own employees, it’s one of their own schools. It’s a lot easier for them to close a charter school because those folks are employed by somebody else, it’s not a district school. In these other cities, charters have been closed for performance more often than these district innovation schools. There’s a greater sense of urgency. You typically find a greater sense of urgency in the charter sector.

I think the third reason is that when you’re starting a school from scratch, as a charter, you tend to get pretty entrepreneurial people. They’re more willing to break the mold and do something really different. You tend to get more innovative school designs from the charter sector. For example, the teacher-run schools in Minnesota — that’s probably not gonna happen in a district-operated innovation school because it’s such a big change. Or you’re probably not gonna get a bilingual Montessori program or an expeditionary learning program. You just find more entrepreneurship in the charter sector.

What that means for these districts is they really should look at what Indianapolis and a few other cities are doing, where they actually contract with charter operators to run district schools and give them the full autonomy that a charter has and give them a five-year performance contract. They don’t call them charters. In Indianapolis, they call them “innovation schools.” In Philadelphia, they call them “Renaissance schools.” But they really have the autonomy — and the accountability — that charters have. But often they’re not schools of choice, like charters. They’re neighborhood schools, and they’re considered part of the district. So that model seems to produce better results.

MP: Your book largely focuses on reforms in large, urban districts. Do you think the take-aways are applicable to suburban and/or rural districts and charter schools as well?

DO: I think they are applicable to suburban districts. It depends on the district. If they’re very small, they’re going to have less need for these strategies because they’re going to have less bureaucracy. But certainly, poverty …  is spreading to the inner-ring suburbs. And many of those districts are pretty large. So I think this model will be very relevant for them. When you get to quite small districts, particularly  in rural areas, I think parts of the model are relevant. I think more autonomy and more accountability and more choice will help.

But geography works against you. It’s hard to have too much choice in a rural area because you don’t have very many schools. And, also, it’s harder in a rural area to contract with independent operators to operate schools because you have personal relationships with the people who work on the public schools. Things are much more on a personal basis than in a big city or a big suburb. I think that means that rural areas will probably be the last to do even pieces of this.