Just a mile from the White House, thousands of charter leaders, policy makers, and national thinkers converged at the 2017 National Charter Schools Conference (NCSC). With lingering questions about the President’s federal budget and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ future policies, leaders looked deeply at what they do know—charter school policy holds both opportunities for innovation and refinement.
As Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (sponsor of the NCSC), wrote in a recent op-ed, “At a time of great uncertainty, one thing is clear: Our movement cannot be silent. We have to get loud about the issues we care about.”
National and state advocates from across the Network and beyond share insights from NCSC for those on the front lines and highlight some unsung charter wins that could serve as models.
While frustrating at times for all involved, charter efforts in blue, purple, and red states will by necessity sometimes look different.
Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute-Ohio, urges advocates to remember that each local context has unique demands: “Nationally, charter schools have an exciting opportunity to make long-term progress, but discord in the movement over a variety of issues puts that in jeopardy. As state advocates, we need to remember that education policy is primarily a state responsibility. We should stay true to the principles of both chartering and our respective organizations. While frustrating at times for all involved, charter efforts in blue, purple, and red states will by necessity sometimes look different. We need to accept that and make each of our own state charter sectors as strong as they can be.”
Advocates must push for policies that strike the right balance between giving schools autonomy and ensuring authorizers can hold schools accountable.
Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, emphasizes the balance between accountability and innovation: “Based on my conversations at NCSC, improving the quality of charter school authorizing is more important than ever. While some charter advocates criticize authorizers for stifling innovation, others call out authorizers for allowing failing schools to replicate and grow. State education advocates must push for policies that strike the right balance between giving schools the needed autonomy to thrive and ensuring authorizers can hold schools accountable when they don’t.”
Inside Colorado, charter funding was the biggest education battle of the session, but outside, I don’t think it received the attention it deserves.
Vice president for growth and strategy at America Succeeds, Eric Lerum, highlights a historic charter funding decision in Colorado that could serve as a model: “The victory in Colorado to ensure that charter schools get a share of local revenue dollars was huge. Inside Colorado, the issue was the biggest education battle of the legislative session and wasn’t achieved until the last day, but outside I don’t think it received the attention it deserves. State advocates would be wise to talk with CO coalition partners like the League of Charter Schools, Colorado Succeeds, and Democrats for Education Reform Colorado about how they secured a bi-partisan compromise.”
Lock arms with your charter public schools. They cannot do this work alone.
Dan Schaller, director of government affairs at the League of Colorado Charters, urges advocates to join forces: “Your support matters, perhaps now more than ever. With all the myths and deliberate misinformation currently being spread about charter public schools, it takes multiple groups working together to effectively counteract this narrative. Case in point: The recent passage of Colorado House Bill 1375 on the equitable sharing of local tax revenue with charter schools. Without the bipartisan support of Colorado PIE Nework partners Democrats for Education Reform and Colorado Succeeds, there’s absolutely no way we get this groundbreaking legislation across the finish line. Lock arms with your charter public schools. They cannot do this work alone.”
Choice in public education isn’t just an urban phenomenon.
Executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, Caroline Roemer, reminds advocates that rural families are powerful voices for choice: “At the NCSC, I heard discussions about stand alone schools and rural charters. Some of Louisiana’s best charter schools are both single site and located in rural communities and are in high demand. These schools serve as proof points that choice in public education isn’t just an urban phenomenon and as advocates we need to do better engaging those educators and families with policy makers to make the point that these are home grown, hometown people who are creating great schools with minimum resources for some of our highest need families.”
The best charter schools strive to innovate for all students.
Sean Gill, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, urges advocates to look at charters as models of innovation for all students: “At NCSC, I joined Scott Pearson of the DC Public Charter School Board and Patricia Brantley from DC’s Friendship Public Charter School on a panel that discussed the policy implications for cities as they approach majority charter enrollment. Continuing to work for nuanced, responsive policies that ensure state education systems, however composed, center on the balance of autonomy and accountability is critical. The best charter schools strive to innovate for all students. This commitment should serve as an example for every public school, as well as private schools supported by state or federal initiatives.
It’s okay for a movement borne out of fighting the status quo to sometimes fight our own beliefs that have become dogma.
Executive director at PennCAN, Jonathan Cetel, offers two pieces of advice for other state advocates: “A conference like the NCSC serves as a refreshing reminder of two truths that are always helpful for advocates to be mindful of.
- If you encounter a problem, odds are someone else is already working on it. Leverage the network of educators and innovators in the charter school sector so that you are never operating in a silo or recreating the wheel.
- These issues are hard and we need the humility to have doubt in our convictions. It’s okay for a movement borne out of fighting the status quo to sometimes fight our own beliefs that have become dogma.”
It’s powerful to remember that innovation is inherent in chartering—what it is now, at age 25, is not what it might be in 25 years.
Alyssa Schwenk, director of external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, encourages advocates to draw from a quarter century of charters to map the future: “From Reed Hasting’s insight into what technology makes possible to Howard Fuller’s reminder to focus on the purpose and not the method to Sec. DeVos’ call to flexibility, this year’s conference presented both a return to the charter movement’s roots as well as a lens into what it can be. For state-level advocates, it’s powerful to remember that innovation is inherent in chartering—what it is now, at age 25, is not what it might be in 25 years.”
If you have specific questions about conversations from the National Charter Schools Conference, please reach out. For highlights from a variety of sessions and keynote speakers, check #NCSC17 on Twitter, and you can watch complete recorded sessions on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Facebook page.