The Schools that Defy Politics

Innovation, accountability, results — charters are on the right track

Before charter schools became a permanent alternative in the nation’s public educational system, the work of establishing them ran right through the political divide. The topic of school choice was front and center in the ongoing educational debate.

It often pitted teacher unions and their largely Democratic supporters against school choice advocates from both the Right and the Left, who argued for new reforms as the nation’s achievement gap wasn’t narrowing, and as progress, measured by national tests, stagnated.

While vouchers giving money to poor kids to attend better schools were much maligned, and politically divisive, charter schools seemed a more palatable way to change the access model.


“It was very much a response to making sure low-income families had access to better schools,” noted Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “At the same time, a lot of those wanting to keep the enterprise in the public domain, and with the accountability, also wanted to experiment to see if they would keep elements of choice in exchange for achievement.”

Related: Charter Schools Spread Across U.S.

She added, “When you look at the early adopters, in all these states the bills passed with huge bipartisan support and that tradition has continued over the years.”

Yet Lately…
Renewed pushback is occurring in some states over charter expansion. Tension also has emerged in the current presidential election.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton turned heads and earned criticism from the Republican National Committee as a flip-flopper on her support for charters after receiving endorsements and campaign donations from teacher unions.

“Most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation,” Clinton said on the stump in South Carolina, noting she is not against charters, but accepts them “not as a substitute for the public schools.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial called her remarks a disturbing foreshadowing should she win the 2016 race.

“Mrs. Clinton’s charter reversal suggests her Education Department would be a wholly owned union subsidiary. The losers will be the poor parents and children who Democrats claim to represent,” the Journal wrote.

As politicos talk education policy, demand for charters remains enormous as more parents step up to say it should be their right to choose the best schools for the children. One expert called their growth tract “unstoppable.”

“We have over a million names of students on charter school wait lists. There is direct correlation with creating more and demand,” Rees said. “As some of our charter schools have grown, they have demonstrated their effectiveness in closing the achievement gap. In some communities, efforts are increasing to replicate that success.”

Better efforts to track student progress on tests are offering researchers data on charter school achievement. Writing in the New York Times, Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, noted of the trend thus far: “A consistent pattern has emerged from this research. In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than public schools.”

The top experiment in the transformative power of charters to innovate in an urban setting may be in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the 2005 tragedy of Hurricane Katrina forced a do-over in the city’s once-disastrous schools. The area was described by a Tulane University professor as “the second-lowest-ranked district in the second-lowest-ranked state in the country” based on test scores.

Faced with rebuilding public education, literally from the ground up, most of the city’s schools became charters overseen by a nonprofit board. Thus far, the turnaround has been remarkable, abetted by a youthful and nontraditional teaching force that showed up post-storm and wanted to help, and by a renewed spirit of community involvement that school leaders there call significant.

“We had a natural disaster here, but we also had an academic disaster,” allowed Maggie Runyan-Shefa, who serves as co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, which has opened and funded 31 charter schools serving 12,000 students through the NOLA Charter Education Fund.

Their track record is promising. According to NSNO, in 2004, 60 percent of city students attended a school that fell in the bottom 10th of test scores for all Louisiana pubic schools. In 2014, that percentage had dropped to 14. More telling than that, 95 percent of NOLA seniors took the ACT in 2015. In 2000, that figure was just 50 percent.

“There is a definite ethos shared between community, school and government that we just have to constantly get better. That mindset has continued to move us forward,” Runyan-Shefa said of the obvious momentum.

“Everyone sort of thinks the schools are headed in the right direction. We are seeing strong upward ticks in that direction,” she said. “But we are not waving the flag of victory. We definitely have a long way to go until all of our students are college-ready or on their path to having a really great life outcome.”​

 This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Tomorrow, we profile a rural charter school that defied the odds.