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Untapped Promise in Charter School Policy

• Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds and Sam Duell

This is National Charter Schools Week, and it feels different this year. Health crises, deepening education divides and economic disaster come to mind. Robin Lake (CRPE) summed it up when she briefed Congress last week.

“There is no way to buy our way out of this problem. More federal funding will almost certainly be needed, but it will be imperative that every dollar is spent on evidence-based solutions. Educators and school system leaders will have to shift and adapt quickly, bringing their greatest creativity and problem-solving capacities to the table.”

It’s not just educators and systems leaders who will need to adapt and help guide us forward. State policymakers can play a valuable role, too, especially in shaping charter school policy to meet new and unprecedented challenges.

There have been at least 33.3 million unemployment claims during the past few weeks. At the same time, a very similar number of people (or approximately 10% of Americans) aged 25 or older have not completed high school. We know that not gaining a high school diploma can mean earning about 25 % less in weekly wages. So it’s possible some of the unemployed or underemployed could upskill by going back to high school to earn a diploma on their way to securing industry credentials that are valued by employers. (The type of credential does matter, after all.) Policymakers can help states gain more high school graduates and higher wages for those employed by leveraging their charter school policies and adult education policies to support students’ development and earning potential.

Diplomas for Adults

In 2010, Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana tapped into Indiana’s charter policy, adult education policy and workforce development policy to create The Excel Center®. Ten years later, more than 5,000 adult learners have earned more than 6,700 industry-recognized credentials on their way to a high school diploma across 18 campuses in central and southern Indiana. Notably, 99% of those graduates have either earned college credit or an industry-recognized credential, and within one year of graduation these newly accomplished individuals have on average increased their wages by 280%.

You might be asking, “Wait, Goodwill? Like the Goodwill where I donate my jeans? They operate charter schools?” Yes. Yes, they do. Goodwill has discovered a policy fusion that just makes sense.

Across the nation, charter schools typically provide families with additional options to support student learning, oftentimes because parents want their kids to have more opportunities for success than they had access to growing up. Goodwill Excel Centers are adult charter schools that give parents themselves additional options to access a customized education leading to a high school diploma (and, perhaps, a postsecondary credential) to improve the lives and economic outlook of their own families.

A recent report from Goodwill Education Initiatives surveyed students who are also parents. In the survey, 73% of student-parents reported an increase in their children’s academics; 78% were employed or in college; and their average wages increased $17,000 after graduation.

Adult charters have been around since 1998 when Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School was founded in Washington, D.C. While our nation’s capital now has a number of stellar adult charters, all overseen by the DC Public Charter School Board, most of them only recently began operating. The board is a model for transparency and accountability, publishing all kinds of financial and academic performance data on its website. (For a brief explanation of the oversight bodies that monitor charter schools, see this two-minute explanation of authorizers.)

States Are Following Indiana’s Lead

It has been argued that while Goodwill’s fusion of charter policy, adult learning and a well-established nonprofit is new, it works well. Other states have recognized the potential, and policymakers are moving to catch up to Indiana.

For example, Texas created a pilot project in 2014, founding a Goodwill Excel Center in Austin. A report to the 85th Texas Legislative Session in 2017 recommended doubling the size of the program after strong indicators of success. Texas policymakers discovered that their charter school law had already created a pathway for this kind of school. It just needed to be applied in a new way.

Illinois passed HB2527 to remove the age cap to allow students older than 17 to access free secondary education. That was back in 2017, and policymakers explicitly referenced The Excel Center as they openly hoped to build such a hub in the state.

And this year, the Arizona House of Representatives sent HB2387 to the Senate, a bill that would create the policy conditions for Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona to start Excel Centers there. An Arizona study commissioned by Goodwill estimated a $5.3 billion economic impact and a boost to wages by $1.9 billion if they were allowed to create 22 centers in the state.

We’re currently in a crisis, and plenty of families (children and parents) will need second chances to improve their economic mobility. It’s important to remember that there is a lot of untapped promise in charter school policy. Policymakers can mold it to meet the changing needs of families. Indiana and Goodwill Excel Centers are excellent examples of how this can be accomplished.



About the authors

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds

Lizzette serves as Vice President of Policy for ExcelinEd, bringing almost three decades of policy and legislative experience at both the state and federal level to the organization. In her home state of Texas, Lizzette served as deputy legislative director for then-Gov. George W. Bush and most recently as Chief Deputy Commissioner for the Texas Education Agency. Under Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Lizzette served as Special Assistant in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs, where she guided the reauthorizations of IDEA and Head Start. She also served as the Secretary’s Regional Representative under Secretary Margaret Spellings. Her career reflects deep experience in education policy development and implementation as well as the “how-to” of legislative work needed to advance education reforms. Among her numerous appointments, Lizzette currently sits on the board of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the Austin advisory board of IDEA Public Schools and the advisory board of UTeach. She received her undergraduate degree from Southwestern University.

Sam Duell

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.