Two days ago—a week before more than 4,000 people will gather at the National Charter School Conference—the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce heard testimony regarding public charter schools. And the conversation was surprising.
At the outset, the panel of four witnesses (comprised of two charter school advocates, a researcher and a parent) appeared to follow a familiar script. The primary message reasserted that students deserve access to an education that meets their unique needs so they can excel in life, and parents across America are finding that education for their children in public charter schools. That’s the power of charter schools.
- Nina Rees, President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, reminded the committee that charter schools are public schools. She explained that they are a diverse set of schools which “make education dynamic for students who learn in many different ways.”
- Greg Richmond, CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, defined the role of charter school authorizers as being responsible for holding charter schools accountable. “Good authorizers,” he said, “monitor the performance and actions of their schools and step in if something is wrong.” Later he noted that 90 percent of authorizers in the country are local school districts, a fact that surprised many committee members on both sides.
- Jonathon Clark, a charter school parent from Detroit, described his frustration with charter school instability and what he perceives as a lack of accountability. He blamed Michigan’s authorization system which, in his words, “has allowed schools to promise things and not deliver them.”
- Martin West, a researcher and educator from Harvard Graduate School of Education, expounded on the research related to charters and their relative success in serving students. “Research confirms,” he stated, “that charter schools are providing high-quality options for millions of American students.”
After these witnesses spoke, the committee members began to make statements and ask questions. One might have expected a partisan divide on the issue, that one side would firmly support charters and the other side would adamantly oppose charters. But what was implied was more interesting. Representatives on both sides of the aisle voiced varying levels of support for the charter school movement, and if there was opposition it was always qualified.
When questioned by one of the members in the minority, even Mr. Clark showed some qualified support for charters saying, “I’m not here to bash charter schools. I’m here to push that accountability is the key.” He advocated for educational solutions that are driven by communities explaining that accountability “needs to come at the lowest level.”
Rep. Jared Polis (D–Colorado) agreed with Clark. As a former charter school founder and superintendent, Rep. Polis said, “The quality of the charter authorizer in writing the contract and enforcing the contract to enforce equity is absolutely critical.”
The conversation was a reminder that there is still bipartisan support for public charter schools and an acknowledgement that they play an important role in our education ecosystem—which was surprising. Because political rhetoric has been so strong lately, it’s easy to forget what folks have agreed on in the past.
To this point, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D–California) referenced how political divides recently affected the California primaries. He stated,
I must admit this conversation is vexing to me. So much of education is subjective…all of us have strong feelings about the education we get…I’m thinking about this because I’m from California and there were millions of dollars spent in the governor’s race all the way down to school board races and everything in between basically choosing sides. I believe charters have some worth but I’m also concerned about a lot of thoughts that Mr. Scott brought up about who’s left behind…How do we reconcile this?
As we recently encouraged policymakers, don’t be distracted by politics. And as Rees and Richmond noted in their testimonies, charter schools are a diverse set that serve an important function in our public education systems.
Let’s get specific when speaking about public charter schools. Remember that public charter schools continue to enjoy support from both parties in Congress. That’s not so common anymore.
About the authors
Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.
Tori Bell is the Policy Analyst for Education Opportunity at ExcelinEd, where she works with state leaders to build and implement supportive education opportunity policies. Prior to joining ExcelinEd, Tori worked for a Member of Congress and managed his education policy portfolio. She received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science from Washington and Lee University, where she also minored in Education Policy and Poverty and Human Capability Studies. Tori currently resides in Washington, D.C.