Education advocates, many calling the divide between charter and district schools a "civil war," met in Boston Tuesday to present their proposed peace treaty: a so-called Third Way.
"Our argument today is that there's a third way that combines the best of charters and districts: autonomy and accountability, and on the other hand universal service and the democratic voice in decision-making," said Chris Gabrieli, CEO of Empower Schools, an education consultancy that organized the conference at the Institute of Contemporary Art. "We think it's all about striking the right balance."
John B. King Jr., the U.S. education secretary, told the audience of about 250 that that can be tricky.
"I think the challenge is making sure both the autonomy is real and the accountability is real," King said. "As you look across the country, you see places where there is faux autonomy, and you also see places with faux accountability."
The conference, co-sponsored by MassINC and The Boston Foundation, brought together Massachusetts education officials, local superintendents and principals, a teacher and a student to discuss ways in which different school systems — from Lawrence to Springfield to Denver — have combined ideas from charter schools and district schools in an attempt to make schools better.
"Maybe some of you think that's just another whitewash of district inertia, or that's just charters in sheep's clothing," Gabrieli said. "I say, seeing is, and for many of you will be, believing."
James Peyser, Massachusetts secretary of education, struck a similar note. While declaring himself "a staunch supporter of charter schools, both as a vocation and an avocation," Peyser said the Third Way movement is something else.
"Some people may hear the term 'Third Way' and think that it's a substitute for charter schools, a means of getting the benefits of charters without all that nasty controversy," Peyser said. While he conceded that "there's more than a little truth to that political analysis," he said he thinks of "Third Way approaches ... as a strategy to supplement, not replace, charter growth."
Superintendents from both Lawrence and Springfield offered examples of "Third Way" practices in their districts. The state assumed control of the entire Lawrence district in 2012 and created "empowerment zones" in Springfield to control failing schools there.
In Lawrence, said the state-appointed superintendent/receiver Jeff Riley, administrators "tried to slim down the central office considerably and give the authority to the principals and the families and the students to make decisions," following a charter-like model of high autonomy and accountability for individual schools. At the same time, he said, charter operators agreed to hire unionized teachers, something charters typically do not do.
Daniel Warwick, the Springfield superintendent, said both he and union leader Tim Collins embraced "a new way of operating and a completely different type of contract that I don't think you saw in most urban areas in the past."
Collins, president of the Springfield Education Association, said this contract gave more power to schools, "and by that I mean empowering the principals, the assistant principals, the teachers, the parents and the students."
He also said this way of working is "nothing new" but instead returns decision-making to the school level, where he said it resided until a couple of decades ago, when the federal and state education departments started to assume more control.
"I have always believed that the people doing the work are the people who should have a voice in how the work is done," Collins said.
He also spoke passionately of the need to fund urban schools in order to combat the powerful obstacles their students face, from persistent poverty to the opioid crisis.
"These are not excuses; these are challenges that we face," he said. "I have been at this for 43 years, and I know kids facing these types of challenges are resilient, and they can survive and thrive if we create the circumstances where they meet with caring adults, have confidence in themselves and start believing in themselves."
To applause, he concluded, "We can accomplish what we want for all the children, not just the charter-school children but all the children."
Shalimar Quiles, chief of staff in Lawrence schools, agreed that "it's really not a novel idea for us to think about great teaching, high-quality enrichment and school-based decision-making."
But, she said, "often it feels like we're choosing sides in this war where the only real victims are our students. And frankly what I hope in Lawrence is that we can get away from that, and we can subtract the titles and types and really think about what makes great schools great."
Lori Butterfield, principal of Lawrence's Guilmette Elementary School, said one Third Way idea — the greater autonomy she now has in providing professional development for teachers — is already yielding results.
"There's no longer that one-size-fits-all model," she said. "In three years I've seen exponential growth. ... I see first- and second-year teachers teaching like veterans with some of the supports we've put in place."
Komal Bhasin, now the principal of UP Academy Leonard in Lawrence, previously ran an Excel charter school in East Boston and a KIPP one in New Orleans. Both in the state-controlled Lawrence school and in the charters, she said, "I think the vision is the same."
On the other hand, she said, she now works with students who have a wider variety of needs, has a much larger staff and feels a greater responsibility to give parents a voice in decisions.
Unlike at a charter, Bhasin said, "parents don't get to vote with their feet, and so the obligation is on me as a leader to allow them to vote with their mouths."
Bhasin also told the largely white audience about another obligation she feels.
"When I was looking around at the demographics of our panel and the leaders in this organization, it doesn't necessarily mirror the communities in which we work," she said. "And I think that challenge is on us as leaders to make sure that we're developing strong succession patterns."
Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he's pleased that "we're starting to see districts, traditional districts, adopt some of these practices" from charter and turnaround schools.
On the other hand, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said she doesn't think this kind of change is yet widespread.
"I'll be very blunt with you that in my travels around the state and even in my own district, I hear very little, if at all, about the Third Way," Chang-Diaz said. "I've been talking about the Third Way for a couple of years, and we hear very little about it on Beacon Hill."
What does come up on Beacon Hill — and will come up even more often toward fall — is the ballot question on whether to lift the cap on the state's total number of charter schools. It came up at the conference, too.
After a pointed comment that "Our time is short, so I'm not going to say anything about my disappointment on the advocacy of our professional organizations to disallow the use of student learning indicators as part of our educator evaluation system — I'm not going to refer to that at all," Chester concluded with a reference to the charter cap vote.
"My hope is that wherever we land, we can recruit our high-performing charters and provide the regulatory structure for our high-performing charters ... not only to open new schools but also to take on some of the turnaround schools."
Although Gabrieli had explicitly said the conference was not about the charter cap vote, Peyser also referred to it. Noting that Massachusetts has just 81 charters, he said, "Now, I think we can do better than that in the future, if and when the cap gets lifted in November."
A few in the audience laughed.
"No need to laugh," Peyser said. "Applause would have been the correct response."
Some people obliged, and he added, "I can see some of you weren't applauding."
It may be too early to declare a ceasefire.
Still, Chang-Diaz said, "I think this is what people want government to do, is stop bickering, and get in a room and figure it out."