This week, NC Family president John Rustin talks with Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, about how North Carolina’s charter school law performed in a new report that ranks charter school laws across the nation.
INTRODUCTION: Nina Rees is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, one of the leading organizations advancing the charter school movement across our nation. Previously, she served as the first Deputy Under Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, and before that as Senior Education Policy Analyst with our friends at The Heritage Foundation.
Nina is with us today to discuss how North Carolina fared in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual report, “Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of State Charter School Laws.” We’ll be talking about how our charter schools performed and where she sees room for improvement in North Carolina.
JOHN RUSTIN: Nina, as we begin, and for the benefit of our listeners, would you please define “public charter schools” for us? And explain a little bit about how they differ from what we have known as traditional public schools?
NINA REES: Yes, public charter schools are public schools they are governed by an entity that could be a school district, a university, or a state. They’re governed under separate rules and regulations that still hold them accountable for raising student achievement, but allow them greater flexibility in order to reach their goals. So to some extent—even though they’re afforded some freedoms around who they can hire and how they can structure the school day, what types of curricula to use and so forth—at the end of the day, the bar on accountability on charter schools is in fact a little bit higher than that on the public school system, because they’re held accountable to raising achievement and holding up to the terms of the contract that they’ve signed. And if they don’t meet up to the terms, they have to be closed. I would say that is the key distinction between a public school and a charter school. If a charter school doesn’t perform, or is not able to attract enough families to keep its doors open, it has to close.
There are 43 states right now that have charter school laws, and each and every one of those laws is different from the other, and so to some extent, defining what it is and how it works is a little bit challenging because each state law is different, and each authorizer operates or manages their charter schools differently. But the good new is that by and large, after being around for nearly 25 years now, charter schools have demonstrated their ability to close the achievement gap, to raise the student achievement of especially low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities. So our track record, so far, especially in inner-city settings where the quality of the traditional system may not be as good, has been definitely on the right track.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s great, and I think it’s so important as you have just stated that there’s a lot of diversity among charter schools across the country in the states that have them. Now, North Carolina has had charter schools in place since our law passed in 1996. How many charter schools are there in North Carolina, Nina, and how many students attend public charter schools here?
NINA REES: Yes, you have about 128 charters, at least as of the 2013/2014 school year, serving a little over 58,000 students every day. And according to our report, which was just released at the beginning of School Choice Week, you ranked 14th out of 43 states. So your law is kind of in the middle, so to speak, and it is better than a lot of others laws, but still has some room to make improvement.
JOHN RUSTIN: And we definitely want to get into that “room for improvement” a little bit later during our conversation. How do North Carolina’s numbers, as far as the number of charter schools that we have and the number of students that attend charter schools, compare to other states?
NINA REES: Every state is different. The jurisdiction that has the most charter schools right now is the Las Angeles unified school district, but you’re also talking about a very large school district, so it goes without saying that the second largest district in the country would have a large number of students in it. We tend to not compare states to one another when it comes to size because so much of the activity happens at the local level. The report looks at what’s in the laws and what is the recipe for success, and in that respect, ranking 14th is a good place to be. But the good news is in North Carolina you’ve made some changes to your laws, so that now you have far more charter schools in the state. But when you create a lot of charter schools, you also have to make sure that you’re holding them accountable. You also need to make sure you are giving them enough funding in order to be able to perform with quality. And the funding side of the ledger right now is not very strong in North Carolina. So, yes, you are able to open charter schools, but being able to operate them without additional philanthropic support is actually quite difficult, especially if you’re trying to meet the needs of students who are behind academically.
JOHN RUSTIN: Certainly. And I think the quality versus quantity is an important thing for us to keep in mind because even being school choice proponents, some may often think, “Hey it’s ideal to have more and more and more [charter schools].” And while we want to provide opportunities for more charters, the quality of these schools is so critically important, and the accountability that you talked about is a real key component of that to make sure that the quality is keeping up with the quantity. Now Nina, your Charter School report uses 20 components to measure and compare state charter school laws. Obviously, we don’t have time today to talk about all 20 of those, but I want to give you an opportunity to give a brief rundown of the components you consider to be most important for charter schools?
NINA REES: Yes, there are 20 components, and they’re each weighed differently. I would say one of the hallmarks of a strong law is whether there are caps on the number of charters you can open. States that rank well in our rubric tend to be states that don’t have very strict caps. And the reason I mention strict caps is because Washington DC has a cap, but the cap allows you to still open a fair number of schools, up to 20 a year potentially. But states like Massachusetts have very strict caps, not only on the number of schools they can open, but also on how much money they can transfer from the traditional system to a charter school, so the funding doesn’t really follow students to the charter of their choice. So those types of caps are far more restrictive, and ones that we have been trying to eliminate. Being able to open a variety of charter schools so that you are not just confined to a certain type of model, but open to blended learning, stem education, you know types of schools that could meet the different needs of the students who are attracted to the chartering space is very important. And a lot of this has to do with the regulatory climate in the state quite frankly, not just the state but also the jurisdiction in which the charter can operate. So if the school board is not in favor of charter schools, then there’s no capability to access a facility, for instance, I would say that this is probably not a welcoming place. Having multiple authorizers, this is where North Carolina falls behind. We try to make sure that every law has at least two authorizers, but that if you’re not able to get approved by one for whatever reason, you have a chance to appeal or go to another entity to get approved. And in North Carolina there’s only one path to getting authorized as a charter school, which we need to change. You don’t want one entity to have monopoly over the system. So those are the types of things that usually make up the components of a strong charter school law. And, again there are 20 of them, but those are the main ones I would say.
JOHN RUSTIN: I think that is a really thorough review of those that you deem to be most important. I do want to go back and visit one of the issues that you talked about, which is a charter school cap. I know that North Carolina had a 100-charter school cap in place for a number of years and then finally in 2011 the North Carolina General Assembly removed the cap on the number of charter schools in our state. But from your perspective, why is the existence, or lack of a cap so important and impactful on charter school development? I know that we saw not only a limitation on the sheer number of new applications that could be filed based on the number of slots that were remaining, but it also seemed to have an impact on the interest of potential charter school applicants, of whether or not they were going to pursue it, if there were a very limited number of slots available.
NINA REES: That’s a great question. What happens when you have a cap, though, is exactly what you mentioned— people are not attracted to the schools because they think they will max out quickly. And the other issue is to the extent the school is performing well and wants to attract more families, they want to expand and replicate, but they’re not able to, and so you create long wait lists, and the end of the day the people you hurt most from the existence of cap are the families that we’re trying to serve. And one thing I should just mention to you is every time we have opened a charter school in a state, that school has generated more interest in creating more schools than there has been wait lists for the high performing schools. So the more charters we create, the longer our wait lists become, and we need to be able to systemically address this issue and lifting caps is one way to do that.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thank you for that explanation. I think that’s helpful. Now you said that North Carolina ranked 14 in this year’s report. How does that compare to prior years, and I know you had recommendations about how North Carolina might be able to improve. Can you talk about those things a little bit for us?
NINA REES: Sure, so last year you were ranked 16th, so you moved up two points, and that was partially because of some changes you made to the renewal process and adding more transparency to the process, which is something that we like. You know, funding equity, that is top of the reason why you are not able to scale your programs. There is not enough money on the table; you don’t have the same amount of money following charter schools that are currently following students to traditional schools. So, addressing that issue will in and of itself dramatically increase your score. I would also say, as I said earlier, having other authorizers to be able to authorize charter schools is important. You never want to be beholden to just one entity that’s authorizing charter schools. They could be great, but if the governments of these entities changes for whatever reason, and you end up with someone who doesn’t like charter schools, then you end up freezing the pipeline altogether. So it’s important having another body authorizing charter schools in North Carolina. Those two things would dramatically improve your score on our model law.
JOHN RUSTIN: Charter schools have enjoyed growing public support nationwide, fortunately, including support from lawmakers, but there are still very vocal and sometimes powerful critics of public charter schools, especially within the public school establishment. In your opinion, what is the top myth that we face about public charter schools that you feel really needs to be debunked?
NINA REES: I would say the public nature of the schools is extremely important, and where there is the greatest amount of confusion, even with the public. To the extent they support charter schools, they don’t know that these are public schools. And our opposition has done a nice job of defining what a charter school is and pointing to some of the aspects of chartering, which may not squarely fit into a traditional school system model. So making sure that everyone understands that it is public, redefining the word public so it’s important for people to understand that you can be public and still be governed by an entity other than the school district. Making sure that everyone understands these are open enrollment schools. And if you have some instances of something bad happening that doesn’t mean that the system in general you know accepts that. We’re open to all students; we have to accept all students. If we don’t have enough room in our school, we have to conduct a lottery in order to accept kids randomly. So the public nature’s extremely important. The other thing the opposition has talked quite a bit about in recent years is this notion, and it ties to the public/private argument, is that the corporations are taking over the chartering space. So, in that respect again that is the greatest myth of all because over 60 percent of charter schools around the country are governed by single-site operators, and only 20 percent of them are governed by charted management organizations. These are entities that have created one, two, or three, up to 10-20 charter schools in a state or in a region. So think about corporate takeover, you’re thinking about Starbucks and Wal-Mart. Here you’re talking about a school that did well and opened another school next door and whatnot. So 20 percent of them are governed by non-profit entities that are aiming to expand their footprint, primarily because they’re doing such a good job at raising student achievement. About 12 percent of them are operated by for-profit operators, and those for-profit also include online providers.
JOHN RUSTIN: Nina, unfortunately we are nearly out of time for this week, but I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to get a copy of your new report, “Measuring Up to the Model,” and also to learn more about the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools?
NINA REES: Yes, so your listeners can go to Publiccharters.org that’s our website. You can also follow us on Twitter at CharterAlliance.
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