Collaboration worth exploring

By next school year, roughly one out of five students attending a public school in Durham County will be in a charter school, rather than in the traditional Durham Public Schools.

That number has been growing over the years, and if expected enrollment patterns continue into the next school year, some 7,000 students will be attending the charter schools. Those schools receive public funds -- allocated at the same per-pupil rate as the traditional public schools -- but are free of many of the requirements and oversight of DPS’ schools.

As charter schools and their enrollment have grown, they have been siphoning more and more dollars from DPS and, as officials frequently and correctly remind us, making planning difficult and eroding the financial underpinning of the traditional schools. On the other hand, it’s fair to acknowledge that parents, given the option of a free public education at those charters, are endorsing the concept and rejecting the traditional public schools for what they see as good reasons.

Understandably, tensions are high between DPS leaders and the charter schools. But as the charters’ role grows in educating our children, it would seem to behoove all sides if the relationship were more collaborative and less adversarial.

There have been efforts at that in the past — and to be fair, there is interaction. Now, the Durham Board of County Commissioners, which is responsible for allocating local funds to the public schools — charters and traditional — wants to see serious efforts toward collaboration. County Manager Wendell Davis told the board, when members raised the possibility on Monday during a presentation by the Durham Charter School Collaborative, that he would bring the idea up at a meeting among the commissioners, the school board and the Durham City Council.

The collaboration idea has been pursued before. A few years ago, DPS leaders and charter-school leaders came tantalizingly close to a compact that would have paved the way to working more closely with one another. The effort failed, amid suggestions from each side that the other had derailed the effort. Commissioner Heidi Carter, a former member and chairwoman of the DPS board, alluded to that past on Monday.

“The idea of collaboration is not new,” she said. “It’s difficult.” Later in the discussion, she observed “I am just saying it is not going to be an easy breezy conversation.”

Notwithstanding that difficulty, we welcome the commissioners’ desires to push for another stab at collaboration. With the education of 40,000 or more students at stake, and with the possibility each set of schools can learn from one another’s successes, it is a worthwhile effort.