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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

What’s the State of Charter Schools Today?

Pandemic learning loss, ESAs, and political polarization challenge these schools
By Rick Hess — January 22, 2024 10 min read
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After serving as president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools since 2012, Nina Rees stepped down last month. Charter schools thrived on Rees’ watch but also became increasingly contentious. Given that, it seemed like a good time to check in with Rees and get her frank perspective, now that she’s newly freed from the responsibility of being the official voice of the charter sector. Before taking on the role of representing the nation’s nearly 8,000 charter schools, Rees served as the first head of innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. Here’s what she had to say.

—Rick

Rick: So, Nina, how would you describe the state of charter schooling today?

Nina: On the one hand, the charter school movement has serious momentum behind it: It is the only segment of the public school system that is growing, we’ve had multiple legislative victories at the state level in 2023, and CREDO’s most recent research shows our clear impact on student achievement up until the pandemic. The pandemic demonstrated the demand for greater options, and our sector certainly rose to meet that demand. On the other hand, since the pandemic, a lot has changed—leadership turnover in many of our schools, new schools built in communities that are not as familiar to the sector, and the general turnover in the teacher workforce make it hard to leverage the increased demand. The continued political forces of the establishment have also made it harder to expand at a rapid clip.

Rick: Can you say a bit more about the “political forces of the establishment”? Who do you have in mind, and how have they affected the pace of charter expansion?

Nina: People often point to teachers’ unions, and they’re definitely a driving force in the establishment, but school district administrators, elected school boards, and parents and taxpayers—whose home value is connected to their local school—are also part of the establishment to one degree or another. Schools are closely connected to communities, and community pride can make it hard to have honest discussions about how well schools are working and whether they’re working for all students or just some. Still, unions are powerful in education because they are closely connected with school districts. In the private sector, a conflict between a union and their employer resolves when both sides figure out how to get what they need while serving customers well. In the public education space, unions have figured out that administrators, elected officials, and community boosters are often the customers who matter most. As a result, students are rarely at the center of the equation, even though they should be the highest priority. While people support efforts to offer a great education in theory, most want this done without disrupting the system.

Rick: You’ve mentioned before that your personal experience with traditional public schooling helped shape your take on choice. Can you say a bit about that?

Nina: When my family moved to the U.S. in 1983, I started attending Blacksburg High School, the only high school in Blacksburg, Virginia. This school was part of the community in more ways than one. The town showed up to our football and basketball games, and everyone from the local garage owner to the college professor sent their child to this school. The community spirit was wonderful, but it also stifled any talk about choices. If you didn’t want to go to BHS, you had to move to another town. I don’t know that anyone will ever disrupt the way things are done in Blacksburg, but I do think that school choice advocates are naïve if we blame all our problems on unions.

Rick: It seems to me that the Biden administration has been somewhat hostile to charter schools, seeking to impose new restrictions, showing lukewarm support for federal charter funding, and not providing the kind of bully pulpit support that the Obama or Clinton administrations did. Is this a fair assessment? If so, what do you make of it?

Nina: The Biden team came to power in the midst of COVID, and much of their work has centered on responding to the pandemic and its aftermath, so some of the challenge is simply an issue of the administration not prioritizing innovation and choice. But it’s true that President Biden is the first president since the advent of charter schools to have risen to power with the strong support of the teachers’ unions—and his wife is a proud member of the National Education Association. This dynamic is new to our sector, since Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not beholden to these unions in the same way. It’s worth pointing out that the president’s home state of Delaware has around two dozen charter schools, and Delaware’s current congressional delegation—all of whom are Democrats—support charter schools.

Rick: Charter schools are still very popular with African American, Latino, and centrist Democrats, but they’re increasingly unpopular with the kind of college-educated progressives who wield a lot of power in the Democratic party today. What has that meant for your efforts?

Nina: This is unfortunate because many of the white progressives who oppose charter schools have made choices to send their own children to great public or private schools. In terms of impact, it’s meant a greater sense of clarity around the need to engage Black, Latino, and centrist Democrats to make a more vocal case for charter schools. The Democratic party needs Black and Latino voters more than ever before, and this subset of the party should leverage that power by vocalizing their support for choice and charter schools more aggressively.

Rick: Meanwhile, in red states, we’ve seen a surge of Republican enthusiasm for universal voucher programs and Education Savings Account legislation. How has this affected charters there? Has this activity been good for charters or has it brought challenges?

Nina: In those states where the dollar amount of the ESA or voucher is higher than the per-pupil expenditures that follow students to charter schools, these programs can create an uneven playing field where charter schools are forced to compete for students while having access to fewer dollars—a situation most charter schools already face when competing with other public schools. In other communities, ESAs and vouchers will probably not have much impact on charters, unless our sector is not meeting the needs of the communities we serve. It’s also important to note that most of the legislators who push for ESAs are also supportive of charter school expansion. Our mission is to elevate the quality of public education—and in this respect, if we do our work well, no parent should want to send their child to a private school.

Rick: You have a better sense of this than I do, but it sure seems like charters are more controversial than they were a decade ago. Why is that?

Nina: Transformational change, especially in the public domain, is hard. In some ways, the controversy is a sign that our sector is having an impact. The controversy stems from demonstrating outcomes and drawing students and resources from school districts. Our public school system, as with any established system, was bound to respond to this.

Rick: How did the pandemic and the aftermath affect the charter sector?

Nina: The initial response by our sector was strong. We saw many schools pivot quickly to online learning and offer Chromebooks and internet access, as well as partner with local groups to offer meals and support for families. As a result, while district schools lost 1.3 million students in the 2021–22 school year, 240,000 families enrolled their children in charter schools. Post-pandemic, our sector is dealing with many of the same issues that other educators are dealing with—increased achievement gaps, mental health issues, and culture wars on top of general educator fatigue and leadership turnover. I believe that charter schools will weather this particular storm, as they are used to change and are nimbler and more entrepreneurial than their traditional district school counterparts.

Rick: What do we know about charter school performance today that we didn’t know a decade ago? And do we have a sense of how charter performance has changed over time?

Nina: Thanks to numerous widely respected studies by CREDO, we know that our schools often perform better than nearby public schools and that the more established networks have been able to perform better over time—especially in terms of meeting the needs of low-income students. With that said, our overall performance, compared with all public schools in a state, is still lagging. And while chartering in and of itself has outlasted other innovations in the field of education, we can’t point to many pedagogical innovations that have originated in our classrooms. Most of the innovations that charter schools have championed are in the management area and oriented around expanding the school day and school year, as well as staffing structures. Some believe that the marriage between the charter school movement and the accountability movement has stifled innovation because of a relentless focus on achievement, and there may be some truth to that. In other words, the singular focus on closing the achievement gap and getting students to and through college has forced many of our leaders to focus on tried and tested methods of teaching.

Rick: I’m struck by how candid that answer is. It seems remarkably open about the strengths and limitations of charters. I don’t feel like I encounter that kind of frankness too often. Do you think that’s something that the charter school community could do better on?

Nina: I think that’s something everyone in public policy can do better on, no matter the issue. It’s impossible to know where you have to improve unless you honestly assess your strengths and limitations. If charter advocates don’t push ourselves to address areas where we can improve, such as being more innovative in the classroom, ESAs and other forms of choice that allow for greater experimentation will take over. In fairness to the sector, asking charter schools to lead on innovation with students who are behind academically is a tough needle to thread. Some new approaches will work great, while others won’t produce the results we need. I would prefer that we carefully test and study new ideas before bringing them into classrooms with students who can’t afford to fall further behind.

Rick: When you started at the alliance, it seemed that the face of charter schooling was the “no excuses” charter schools. Today, those schools have backed away from many of their old practices, and they’re far less visible than they once were. How would you describe the face of charter schooling today?

Nina: The term “no excuses” may have been a popular term in some corners and with some philanthropies, but the sector has always been diverse in terms of its offerings. For instance, we’ve always had schools that are focused on overage and undercredited students or STEM, as well as culturally affirming schools. Ultimately, the parents and communities we serve need to be interested in sending their children to our schools, and schools that are focused on sending students to college are always going to be popular. Nationally, Classical Academies are certainly gaining momentum, in part for political reasons and in part because many parents are drawn to the idea of rigorous, time-tested academics.

Rick: Last question: If you had one piece of advice to offer the charter community as it negotiates the political environment of 2024 and beyond, what would it be?

Nina: Building coalitions will be really important for the charter sector in 2024 and beyond. Every sector that works with government has felt the ground shift in recent years. It’s hard to know if old friends will remain friends and where your new friends and opponents might emerge. When I started doing this work, school choice was part of a larger effort to revitalize communities through tax breaks for businesses, incentives for homeownership, etc. I would band with other sectors that are aligned with our mission so that charter schools are seen as a critical part of a larger effort to bolster our economy, end poverty, and broaden access to the American dream.

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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