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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Choice & Charters Opinion

How Are Charter Schools Faring in Our Polarized Political Era?

Supporting new schools has always been a tall order
By Rick Hess — February 09, 2023 6 min read
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New Schools for Baton Rouge was started back in 2012 to launch and support new schools in Louisiana’s capital. To date, the organization has opened 21 schools, and their enrollment comprises 25% of all public school enrollment in Baton Rouge. Ken Campbell took over as CEO last year, after a background that includes a long stint as president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and nearly a decade in the Louisiana Department of Education—where he was director of charter schools for several years. At a time of exploding educational choice, sharp political tensions, and debates about the future of charter schooling, I was curious to hear Ken’s thoughts after his many years navigating these currents in a state that has long been at the center. Here’s what he had to say.
—Rick

Rick: So, what is New Schools for Baton Rouge?

Ken: New Schools for Baton Rouge (NSBR) is an organization made up of the city’s top civic leaders that is focused on ensuring that every child in Baton Rouge has access to an excellent education. To deliver on this mission, we help launch new, high-performing schools that allow students to reach the highest levels of achievement. We are also focused on attracting and retaining top teaching talent, supporting community partners who help children excel in school, and making it easier for parents to choose great schools.

Rick: What prompted you to take on the role?

Ken: I had the privilege of collaborating with my good friend Chris Meyer as he launched NSBR 10 years ago and served on the organization’s board of directors for several years. When the opportunity to lead the organization as CEO opened, it felt like my career was coming full circle. My first civilian job after leaving the army in 1991 was with a civic-led nonprofit working with district leaders to improve public schools in Washington, D.C. Obviously, this was at a time when people were just beginning to identify and talk about the achievement gap and before the introduction of charter schools and many other reforms that we now take for granted.

Rick: What are the biggest challenges you’re seeing as we emerge from the pandemic?

Ken: As we emerge from the pandemic, three challenges are top of mind for me.

First is the challenge of chronic absenteeism and truancy. Second, we appear to be witnessing more disruptive student behavior since the pandemic. While we’re responding to these incidents as they occur, we are struggling to identify root causes and implement proactive solutions. Third, I’m seriously worried about teachers leaving the classroom. There are increased levels of frustration and exhaustion among educators because they are not being given the proper tools to deal with the challenges that have arisen since heading back to in-person instruction. I don’t believe school and state leaders were prepared for the aftereffects of the pandemic.

Rick: Can you talk a bit more about the role of parents and their impact?

Ken: All parents, regardless of their income level, should have a say in where and how their children are educated. The schools that we open give poor families the right to choose the education that fits their child best—many for the first time. Over time, we see parents becoming increasingly sophisticated choosers and informed school partners. In Jeff Bezos’ 2017 letter to Amazon shareholders, he said, “One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static—they go up.” I feel this is exactly what’s happening with parents in Baton Rouge. Schools are finding that they have to be responsive to the increasingly high expectations from our families.

Rick: There’s a lot of political conflict around charters right now. How does that affect your work?

Ken: Charter schools have enjoyed a long run of bipartisan support through multiple administrations. So, the effort last spring to make funding from the U.S. Department of Education for charter growth and expansion more difficult to obtain came as something of a surprise. Charter schools remain one of our best tools for strengthening educational options for children, and for the first time in more than two decades, it appeared that politics would trump good education policy. Fortunately, a broad coalition of charter supporters stepped in and saved charter start-up funding, albeit with more cumbersome rules and regulations.

It is important to remember that the federal government has not always played a role in fueling charter growth. In the early days, it was actually private philanthropy that decided investing in charter schools was a better bet than continued investment in a traditional public school system. Over time, the federal government’s CSP program made start-up funding for charter schools readily available, and private philanthropy moved to fill other voids, like facilities. I hope that private philanthropy is ready to step back in whenever and wherever charter funding is threatened.

Rick: What are some of the ways you keep diverse stakeholders together in New Schools?

Ken: One way that we’ve done this is through our community impact grant program. Recognizing that community partner organizations are often best positioned to provide students and schools with vital support services, we are making investments in more than a dozen organizations this year. We’re investing in programs working directly with schools or individual families to provide tutoring and academic support, arts and enrichment, self-esteem and increased self-confidence, counseling, etc.

Rick: You said the charter community includes both those committed to traditional schools and those focused on more innovative models. How do you balance this tension?

Ken: There are several distinct and passionate school communities that all reside under the charter school banner. One is made up of individuals and organizations focused exclusively on creating “better public schools.” We have another set of charter operators who believe our kids need different and more innovative approaches to produce better results and see the autonomy afforded to charter schools as an opportunity to fundamentally change how our children experience school. Because we prioritize the urgency of getting as many children as possible into better schools, we invest significantly more time and energy into growing the “better public schools’’ models. I’m not convinced; however, some of our biggest lessons and breakthroughs about teaching and learning won’t come from the smaller, more innovative schools.

Rick: What’s one key lesson you’ve learned during your three decades in education?

Ken: That we don’t value teachers enough. We actually encourage our best and brightest young minds to pursue any profession other than teaching, and when young people pursue degrees in education, we push them through university teacher preparation programs mired in outdated thinking. Novice teachers who make it to the classroom are then subject to ineffective leadership and inconsistent coaching and development. And, we pay our teachers a fraction of what they deserve. If we truly care about improving educational outcomes for students, redesigning the teaching profession from top to bottom should be one of our most urgent priorities.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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