Tempers can flare in the national debate over public education, which sometimes feels like a winner-take-all conflict for the highest of stakes. But those with the most to lose are students. That’s the case here in Southern California, where public charter school options are showing notable promise in potentially surprising ways, yet still face political obstacles. Charters have become a beacon for innovation, even as traditional public schools are facing challenges.
One of the latest examples comes from an experiment by the University of Southern California, which wanted to get more involved in helping to improve education for local high school students in Los Angeles. The university’s Rossier School of Education linked up with the Los Angeles Unified School District, along with the Urban League, to turn around Crenshaw High School. The partnership was a long one, reaching back to 2007. But, after five years, it fell apart, bedeviled by stakeholder disagreements over campus culture and learning assessment. Disagreements like this can be complex and serious. Even severe differences of opinion and judgment, however, can be mitigated in the right institutional environment. When that kind of support and flexibility is lacking, however, the results are apt to look much like Crenshaw High’s: costs sunk, feelings hurt, failures compounded and, thus, the partnership dissolved.
Smarting from the setback, Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher went back to the drawing board — informed this time by what she described to the Wall Street Journal as a “humbling and instructive” experience. What arose from the school’s fresh start was something much different than the typical union partnership: a charter school network called Ednovate, which is now ready to open nearly half of its schools in Los Angeles this fall.
With Gallagher as chair and the USC involvement extended to all of the charters, the move is a powerful and unexpected testament to the potential of charter schools to deliver results that even dedicated educators and scholars struggle to attain in traditional public schools.
As of yet, there’s no effort afoot to try to scuttle the program. USC isn’t directly running the schools, instead opting to keep open a $1 million line of credit, as campuses fill up with enrollees. But, for Gallagher, the opportunities afforded by the charter model obviate the need for heavier interventions.
“Going into an existing school and trying to make changes is…