It’s been thirty years since the first law enabling charter schools was enacted in Minnesota back in 1991. Today, there are over 7,500 charter schools and campuses across the country, with 200,000 teachers serving 3.3 million students. To take stock of the current state of charter schools, I checked in with Nina Rees, who since 2014 has been the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Rick Hess: Nina, what’s the state of charter schooling today?
Nina Rees: What started with one law and one school in Minnesota in 1991 has blossomed into a nationwide movement. Student-centered, tuition-free, and always public, charter schools have changed the American public education landscape for the better—and the data is compelling. A 2020 study from the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University using “the nation’s report card” data found that students attending charter schools made greater academic gains from 2005 to 2017 than students attending district-operated schools, with the most significant gains for Black students and low-income students. And a 2017 study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that our sector has gotten stronger over time in terms of growth and academic performance.
Hess: For readers who don’t track these things: What is it that makes something a charter school?
Rees: Charter schools are a special kind of public school. They are established when people from the community—often veteran teachers and school leaders—apply to charter school authorizers, who are typically a nonprofit organization, government agency, or university, for a “charter” to open a school. After the application is approved, the charter is good for a specific time period and can be renewed if they meet their goals or revoked if they do not. Charter schools are also accountable to parents. If they cannot fill their seats with enough students, they will have to close. Because charter schools are under the administrative control of the authorizer and not the school district, they have the built-in flexibility and autonomy to design and implement classroom instruction. Teachers and leaders can meet students where they are and provide the best learning methods for them to gain the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in college, career, and life. And that model works. Millions of students and thousands of teachers and schools make up the dynamic charter school community. Some schools focus on college prep, some follow a STEM curriculum, and others integrate the arts into each subject. All are focused on the student and their unique learning needs.
Hess: What are some common misunderstandings about charter schools?
Rees: Thirty years after their creation, people are still unclear about what charter schools are and who they serve. There are three big things to know. First, charter schools are public schools—they’re free and open to all, without the admission standards or tests that are often required to attend a magnet school or a gifted and talented program at a public school. Charter schools also serve predominantly underserved communities and do an exceptional job at it. The data tell us that almost sixty-nine percent of charter school students are students of color, compared to about fifty-two percent of district school students. Finally, the charter school movement is bipartisan. In fact, most charter schools are created in progressive communities by progressive educational leaders who share a basic belief that all children deserve an excellent public education and every opportunity for success.
Hess: How has the pandemic impacted demand for charter schools?
Rees: The pandemic drove parents to explore different education models and find schools that are the best fit for their children. While final numbers are not yet in, we are seeing evidence that families voted with their feet to enroll their children in charter schools—for example, in New York City, charter school attendance grew by about ten thousand students this school year, a seven percent increase over last school year’s enrollment. That’s because charter schools’ nimbleness and flexibility were especially on display during the pandemic. The Center for Reinventing Public Education, the Fordham Institute, and our own organization, in partnership with Public Impact, found that during the initial pandemic-related school closures in the spring of 2020, charter school networks and single sites established online learning that mimicked typical school days and that maintained structure for students and prioritized student health and well-being through family outreach and support. We know that charter schools were able to provide online learning options within just a few days of campus closures, ensuring that learning continued and students did not fall behind.
Hess: You recently celebrated 30 charter “Changemakers” under 30—how do their stories capture what you see as the most promising things about charter schooling?
Rees: When you read the stories of our honorees, who were all blessed with access to a charter school in their communities, you realize very quickly that if they were not fortunate enough to attend those schools, they would not have been able to blossom into the leaders they are today. Parents who seek charter schools are drawn to these schools for very different and specific reasons, often rooted in finding a school that fits their children’s unique learning needs. Some of our students needed to attend a charter school because their schedules didn’t permit them to attend a traditional public school, like NCAA champion gymnast Natalie Wojcik from Michigan; others were drawn to their schools because they saw them as the best or only pathway to college, like anti-gun violence activist Lauryn Renford from Washington, D.C.; and still others found our educational sector because a school offered a specialized curriculum that allowed them to study something they loved, like 15-year-old scientist and app developer Gitanjali Rao from Colorado.
Hess: Prominent Democrats have expressed skepticism about charter schools in recent years. And this year was the first time in many years that, for whatever reason, the White House did not issue a proclamation for National Charter Schools Week. How are you operating in this new political environment?
Rees: Our sector needs to be more diligent in holding our elected officials accountable, at all levels of government. In the 2020 election, voters elected or re-elected charter-friendly candidates in races across the country. Those elected officials are listening to their constituents and creating more favorable conditions for charter schools, and states are embracing the innovation and opportunities charter schools bring to communities and students. Most public charter schools are in solidly-Democrat congressional districts and, in that respect, voting against charter schools is voting against the families, students, and prosperity of that community. We remain hopeful that the Biden administration will honor its commitment to unifying the nation by supporting all public schools—both charter and district. And, we are fortunate to have strong Democratic advocates in Congress whose support is crucial in passing legislation and furthering our work to help more families across America. For example, in the House, there are Representatives Jeffries, from New York; Clyburn, from South Carolina; and Cleaver, from Missouri. In the Senate, there are Senators Coons and Carper, both from Delaware; Sinema, from Arizona; and Booker, from New Jersey.
Hess: It sounds like you’re saying, in general, Democrats are actually more supportive of charters than Republicans—is that what I’m hearing?
Rees: I’m saying there is strong bipartisan support for charter schools, particularly among parents. Black and Latino Democratic voters are overwhelmingly strong charter supporters; in fact, they are the strongest. All types of Republicans are supporters and, among lawmakers, we do have more Republican than Democratic champions. But the major point I am trying to make is that, on balance, charter schools have more supporters than detractors, period. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is an American issue.
Hess: You mentioned a moment ago that states are enacting charter-friendly legislation. Can you give me a few examples?
Rees: Recent laws passed in Georgia and Indiana will bring facilities and funding equity for existing charters. Iowa, West Virginia, and Wyoming have improved charter school laws by establishing statewide authorizers to allow for rapid expansion and more opportunities for families. We were also pleased to see the steadfast support of Governor Dan McKee of Rhode Island to protect the state from a charter moratorium.
Hess: Looking back over the decades, what would you say are the biggest things the charter movement has gotten wrong and right?
Rees: Our sector has demonstrated that the achievement gap can be closed, and it has effectively disrupted the public education system, but we need to be better storytellers. We have often relied on policy wonks and researchers to convey the benefits of charter schools and successes of our children and teachers, while forgetting to leverage the voices and stories of our communities. We will continue lifting students and school leaders like our 30 Under 30 Changemakers to show the country what public charters are and can do for all students, and especially our Black, Brown, and underserved students. There simply is no other education model that works as well as a high-performing charter school when serving students who have struggled academically or are members of underrepresented communities. That’s what truly matters, and that’s what we need to communicate.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.