School Choice & Charters

Taking the Pulse of the Charter School Sector: Five Questions for Nina Rees

By Arianna Prothero — June 24, 2015 5 min read
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New Orleans

This week was the 15th annual National Charter Schools Conference in New Orleans, the largest regular gathering of charter school professionals in the country.

To take the pulse of the charter school sector—trends and issues to track—I caught up with Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools while we were at the conference.

Our conversation, which has been edited down for clarity and brevity, runs the gamut from the backfill debate, how Nevada’s groundbreaking private school choice law could affect charter schools, and New Orleans education reforms that have now put over 90 percent of the city’s students in charters.

Q. New Orleans is important because it’s the first city where charter schools have really become the system. But there’s really no other city close to New Orleans’ level. With that in mind, what lessons can be learned from New Orleans when it’s really in a class of one?

A. I would say that some of the lessons learned around putting better expulsions policies in place are highly relevant to other charter schools that perhaps haven’t figured out how to solve that problem. To that extent, if a governor or a mayor is interested in doing something transformative, they now have a road map of what can happen when you give autonomy to all public schools. ...

Already there have been some discussions in Nevada ... Georgia to create a recovery-like model like we have here in New Orleans. ...

The other lesson is in the common [application] system. ... I think that’s a model that a lot of other cities should be trying to emulate.

Q. As you mentioned there are more states looking at these state-run turnaround district models. What are the chances that we’ll see another New Orleans because there were so many unique circumstances surrounding how the city got to where it is? Is this going to be a one-off?

A. I hope it’s not going to be a one-off. I think it’s going to require a politician and perhaps a mayor who has control over the schools who wants to replicate this in their jurisdiction.

They don’t have to go toward an all charter model. What New Orleans has done is given autonomy to every principal to run their schools as they wish. So that’s something that I hope and wish a lot of other cities will want to take a look at. ... But the fact remains that by starting over they were really able to transform the system from a really bad one to a good one. ... This would not have happened if they hadn’t given full autonomy to every school to operate their school as they wish. It wouldn’t have happened if parents didn’t have choices amongst those schools. And it wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t a sense of urgency.

Building that sense of urgency is probably the hardest piece.

Q. This is sort of the marquee gathering for charter school professionals in the U.S. annually, and it’s the 15th year of the National Charter Schools Conference. Revisiting some of the things you said in the [opening general session at the conference], and looking forward, what are some of the big chartering trends coming down the pipe, and what are some of the big issues facing the movement?

A. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of charter schools, so we’re going to devote a little bit of time thinking through what the next 25 years needs to look like and what should we be pushing from a policy standpoint to get there.

To answer your question in terms of ... issues facing our movement that have been in the media recently, one of them is this notion of backfilling, that some schools, after they lose students, are not filling those seats with new students.

And again this is something that only a few schools can afford to do because in most places once you have that empty seat, if you don’t accept a new child, you won’t be able to sustain the school if you go down this path of having too much attrition without filling those gaps. So we’re trying to look and see if this is a problem in other places, but in certain areas it definitely seems to be an issue.

But to the extent that you’re thinking about chartering as a reform that is here to educate and replace the traditional school system as we know it, you need to have solutions to these issues and making sure that as a system we are open and ready to serve the needs of all students is extremely central to our mission as a movement.

That doesn’t mean that every school needs to do this, but you need the majority of schools to be devoted and committed to the concept of filling the empty seats.

Q. What are some other issues you discussed in the general session?

Access to facilities continues to be one of our greatest challenges, so when we talk about federal funding, access to free facilities, we haven’t been able to figure out a one size fits all solution for the movement the way the public system has access to bonds and so forth. For us, it’s going to be really important to figure out what are the other levers we need to pull or talk to lawmakers to put in place.

Q. Switching gears here a bit, as you know Nevada passed a really expansive, groundbreaking school choice law, and that new law allows public school families—both in traditional district and charter schools—to use their per pupil funding toward education expenses of their choice, whether it be supplies for homeschooling, or private school tuition or a mix of private and public school options.

Is this type of private school choice program a potential threat to charter schools?

A. From what I understand, this is a $5,000 reimbursement that you get to attend a private school. I don’t know what the average tuition is at a private school in Nevada is, but I don’t know that this amount is enough to fully fund the education of a low-income student. So to the extent that low-income families don’t have access to other sources of funding, which most of them don’t, this is not necessarily going to help them. It seems to me that it is a program that will probably benefit middle-class families more than others, so in that sense I don’t see it as a threat to the chartering movement because charter schools primarily serve, especially in Nevada, the needs of low-income students.

The other thing about choice, though, is we have choices in D.C. There’s some funding for private school choice, certainly access to either the traditional system or charter schools. I think having more options is good for families and, personally, I think it’s good for our movement to constantly challenge itself and realize the audience of families that it has could leave if we’re not constantly improving our craft and challenging ourselves to do a better job.

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Photo courtesy of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.