Rees: 4 Ways America’s Charter Schools Must ‘Dream Big and Act Big’ to Keep Making Progress for All Students

Credit: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

The charter school movement is gathering next week in Austin, Texas for the National Charter Schools Conference . It’s the right place at the right time. Texas is home to some of the most respected charter school networks in the country — KIPP, IDEA, and Yes Prep — as well as great independent charter schools. They flourish because the state has a strong educational ecosystem, in which leaders aren’t afraid to think — and act — big.

Charter school leaders and the Texas Charter Schools Association have put a premium on quality, leading to marked improvement in charter school performance throughout the state. At the same time,Texas political leaders have reduced funding inequalities and encouraged districts to work with charter schools to make high-quality public school options available to more students. In its Every Student Succeeds Act plan approved earlier this year, Texas specifically sought permission to use school improvement dollars to make more charter school seats available.

This year’s conference is occurring at a time of success and opportunities for the charter school movement. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., increased their commitment to the federal Charter Schools Program this year — funding CSP at a level of $400 million, the highest ever. Included within that funding is more support for charter school facilities — a recognition that charter schools don’t have access to the same tools that school districts do when it comes to finding and maintaining appropriate school facilities.

Political support isn’t a given, especially in the current polarized political environment. Most Democrats and Republicans still recognize that charter schools have been more effective than any other education strategy at opening the doors to college and career opportunities for black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Yet recent primary elections in California and elsewhere have demonstrated that Democrats are torn between support for charter schools and support for anti-charter unions.

For charter schools to keep making progress, we need to follow Texas’s example and think and act big, with our minds on the future. That will require tackling a few big challenges.

First, we need to make sure that we’re using our freedom to be innovative and preparing our students for the future.

Purdue University opened a charter school to attract more students in the STEM fields to Purdue — especially students from low-income and diverse backgrounds. Charter schooling was the answer, Purdue President Mitch Daniels told The 74, because if the university had waited for school districts to send them enough STEM scholars, they’d never reach their goals.

It’s incumbent on charter schools to learn about the needs and opportunities in their states and communities and use their flexibility to ensure that their graduates have the skills to seize those opportunities.

Our second challenge is to keep growing the schools we have and pushing into new communities so that more students can access what we offer.

As much as the charter school movement has grown over the past decade, we are still not everywhere we should be. Even in the cities with the most charter schools, we have long waitlists. And there are vast areas — urban, suburban, and rural — without charter schools, including many with lots of low-income families who desperately need better options. The future of this movement depends on meeting needs everywhere we find them.

As we do that, we must push ourselves to serve all students — especially those who come to us with special needs.

Last week, I testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. I talked about my recent visit to DREAM Charter School in New York City. DREAM started as an activity program for neighborhood kids — just two baseball diamonds and some volunteers. Afterschool enrichment and summer programs followed. And finally a charter school.

DREAM Charter School is absolutely committed to serving every student possible. Twenty-seven percent of DREAM students have special needs — higher than the citywide average. And DREAM’s students outperform city and district peers on both English Language Arts and math exams.

That’s what charter schools can deliver when we dream big and act big, prioritizing both educational excellence and educational equity.

Third, we need to be focused on our main mission, which is educating every student for the future.

Education is a tremendous tool to fight poverty and other social challenges. And we know that education is most effective when kids are ready and able to learn. It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach. Or when you’re sick and can’t see a doctor. Or when you’re worried about immigration authorities knocking on your door.

So we need to do what we do best — and what parents have asked us to do — and focus on the education of our students. At the same time, we need to find good partners who have expertise in other areas that impact our students’ lives. We can’t solve every challenge on our own, but we can be part of coalitions that leverage lots of different expertise to make students’ lives better.

Finally, charter schools must be ready to defend our schools and the freedoms that come with chartering.

A good reason to build alliances with other social justice organizations is that when we are threatened, we will be in a better position if we have allies who know us, have seen our good work, and can defend us against attacks from those who misrepresent us.

But our best defense starts with ourselves. Our families must be mobilized to defend their school when someone tries to convince local politicians that it’s not a public school, or that it doesn’t deserve fair funding, or that it’s taking away resources from other schools.

We should be loud and proud about our schools and our kids, and make sure that our parents are using their voices to defend their schools and their right to choose an innovative public school that prepares their child for the future.

The future demands that we think and dream big for our students. And I am excited to do that over the next three days in Austin!

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