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How the Charter School Movement Is Changing: A Top Charter Advocate Looks Back and Ahead

The president and CEO of the nation’s largest charter school advocacy organization is stepping down at the end of 2023.

Nina Rees has led the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools for the past 11 years, a time that has seen major changes in the charter school sector, which has arisen as the most prominent alternative to the traditional public school system.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run schools of choice overseen by nonprofit boards versus elected ones.

Charter school enrollment more than doubled from the fall of 2010 to 2021, according to federal data, and the sector now educates 3.7 million students—which is 7.4 percent of all public school students. And it continues to expand. This year, Montana became the 46th state to pass a law allowing charter schools to operate.

Rees has spent decades helping shape education policy. Prior to her tenure at NAPCS, she served as the first Deputy Under Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education under George W. Bush and worked on the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, a federally funded voucher program.

Education Week spoke with Rees about how the charter school sector has changed during her tenure, and what is ahead for the movement—both in terms of challenges and opportunities. (Rees has not announced what she will do next, nor has the alliance named a new CEO.)

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In your opinion, what have been the most significant developments in the charter sector during your tenure?

First, the growth in the number of students in charter schools. We saw an even greater growth during the pandemic.

The other significant development, of course, is the shifts in the politics of charter schools, which started, quite frankly, when I began this job, when President Obama was in office. When he first came in, there was a lot of momentum. He was a big supporter, wanted double the allocation for the [federal] Charter Schools Program [the only source of federal funding for opening new charter schools and expanding or replicating existing ones].

We also saw an increase in the number of schools in certain communities, certainly New Orleans was one of them, Washington, D.C., and a few other places. So, the establishment [such as teachers’ unions] started to pay more attention and more aggressively attack charter schools. I would say during the pandemic, some of that noise has dissipated because everyone’s obviously more concerned with reopening schools and ensuring students are safe, and everyone’s collectively dealing with the mounting achievement gap that COVID caused.

When I started this job, the focus [in charter schools was] on getting students to and through college at elite schools. As time has gone on, there’s been more attention to making sure students are attending a school that fits their needs, a greater attention to potentially sending students to schools that prepare them for a job, and more CTE charter schools.

If you had one wish to change one thing in the past 11 years, what would it be?

Well, look, 65 percent of our sector is led by leaders who are just running one school or just a handful of schools. When you talk about charter schools, certainly the opposition seems to [criticize] charter management organizations that are running multiple sites and that are not part of the community. From a messaging standpoint, I wish that our sector had elevated [independent charter school leaders’] voices. The face of the sector truly is these 65 percent of leaders who are just running one school that is customized to fit the needs of the community.

Most of our [school] leaders are there just to educate their students, and that is as it should be. But we also live in a highly political system that’s become even more politicized. So, in that respect, we’re trying now hard to make sure people understand that in order for them to save their schools and to open more charter schools and to allow more families to come to their schools, that they have to be more politically engaged.

What is the most difficult problem facing charter schools today?

Well, one of them is teacher fatigue. And then right now, just closing the achievement gap that was accentuated during the pandemic is front and center for a lot of educators.

Keeping the pipeline of talent to open new schools used to be fueled by groups like Teach for America. That entity is not graduating as many students. And there’s just not as many TFA teachers who are interested in opening charter schools. There are individuals now who are running community centers, after-school programs, and other organizations that are adjacent to education who could potentially run really effective schools, but they are different from the pipeline that we’ve had in the past. You have to always be attracting new individuals, challenging them to open great schools, and also shielding charter schools from rules and regulations that dampen innovation or the types of innovators who could potentially create great schools.

I think it’s really important to pay attention to that and bring a new generation of individuals who are dedicated to opening schools and running highly transformational institutions.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for charter schools in the next decade?

This talent issue, making sure that we are attracting newcomers, making this field interesting and attractive for them to enter. And one of the things we just did at the federal level is amend the Charter Schools Program to allow for pre-planning grants so that individuals who want to apply for a charter have some resources to apply to their authorizer [the entities that have the legal authority to grant charters, to open a school].

The second thing [is] the evolution of AI, which is happening right before our eyes and how you use it both to make teaching and learning easier in the classroom, helping students through AI tutors and whatnot, but also being at the forefront of really educating the types of minds you need to build for the future workforce. A lot of them are going to enter a workplace with jobs that don’t currently exist.

And then the evolving politics, to the extent the left and the right are pulling in different directions, you don’t want charters to continue to get pulled in one way or the other.

How do you see charter schools’ role in the broader K-12 education system in the future?

Personally, I’ve always thought of them as laboratories of innovation with the hopes of replicating those innovations in district-run schools. And a lot of those innovations right now are around management, expanding the school day, expanding the school year, differentiated pay. There are some models around restorative justice and trauma-informed models that some of our schools are experimenting with that they’re sharing with other public schools.

For these types of innovations to take hold, you do need to invest a lot more in research and development, either at the federal level, state level, or through [philanthropy]. Because it’s hard for a district superintendent to look at one school and decide, OK, it’s working really well in this one school, I’m going take it to every single school in my community. You need to test and test in order to gain confidence that it can be scaled [to an entire school district]. That, to me, is really important.

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