School Choice & Charters

Diversity, Facilities a Focus of New Charter Alliance CEO

By Dakarai I. Aarons — July 01, 2010 3 min read
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Peter C. Groff, named today as the new president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says he will push for better, school-appropriate facilities for charters, equitable funding for charter schools, more diversity in the charter school movement and continued innovation to serve the needs of children and their families.

“It’s an era of unprecedented opportunity and space for growth in this sector,” he told me during an interview yesterday afternoon at the organization’s annual conference, held this year in Chicago. “For that growth to happen, we need to make sure there are high-performing schools that are sustainable.”

Groff most recently served as the director of the Center for Faith‐Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U. S. Department of Education. He replaces longtime leader Nelson Smith, who announced his plans to step down in February. Before joining the Obama administration, Groff was president of the Colorado Senate—the first black Coloradan to hold that position.

One of the alliance’s major goals will be to increase diversity among charter advocates and educators. Groff said he will be reaching out to leaders of traditional civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and the National Council of La Raza, to discuss partnerships.

While the charter movement has often framed itself as advancing a civil rights agenda (charter students are heavily racial and ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged), members and leaders of mainline civil rights groups have not necessarily been strong supporters of charter schools.

“We need to reach out to people whose work supports what we do, but who are not yet charter supporters,” Groff said. “They need to be educated about the role charters are playing. I think they would all agree education is not where we want it to be.”

Groff wants the national alliance to be a stronger partner with its state affiliates, helping to fend off attempts to weaken charter laws in some state legislatures, and helping states new to charters develop good laws and practices that “grow charter schools in a way that brings quality and sustainable growth.”

“Where policy is set is at the state level,” Groff explained. “You saw that with Race to the Top, when states began to change their charter laws.”

He also wants to see charters take better advantage of closed school buildings to get their kids into spaces designed for academic use and out of the storefronts and old warehouses that some charter schools have used. Groff will likely find some support in that area from Bill Gates, who has advocated for better relationships between charters and districts and said Monday his foundation is working on compacts to help foster those relationships and set up some sharing agreements.

The alliance has launched a major public relations campaign, called “It’s A Fact,” to increase public understanding of charter schools. Rather than explain what charter schools aren’t, said alliance spokeswoman Deborah Veney Robinson, the alliance is focusing on positive messaging.

“It’s A Fact” is already sharing charter school messaging in one of America’s prime tourist spots: Times Square. The flashing billboard tells passersby that charter schools are public, do not charge tuition, and are working to close achievement gaps.

The need for such information is clear: The majority of respondents to PDK/Gallup’s most recent poll of American attitudes toward public education said they believed charter schools charge tuition, are free to teach religion, select students on the basis of ability, and are not public schools.

Beyond a public education campaign, charters must continue to try new things, Groff said.

“To continue to push reform, we should continue to be innovative,” he said. “The more we are innovative, the more we can tap into the way kids learn and their interests.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.