Five Questions with New Charter Advocacy Head Nina Rees

Published June 14, 2012

Today the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools announced it elected Nina Rees as its new president and CEO. Rees is a former senior vice president for global education provider Knowledge Universe, former head of the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, where she oversaw the D.C. vouchers program, and a former senior education analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Charter schools are public schools given greater freedom to experiment with structure and staff in exchange for high performance targets and the possibility of closure for performing poorly. Approximately two million students, or 5 percent of the U.S. school-age population, attend charter schools, and another 650,000 children are on charter waitlists. Students are usually admitted by lottery. Charters cannot deny special-needs or far-behind students.

As now one of the charter school movement’s prominent leaders, where do you aim to steer it?
The past 20 years of the charter school movement has taught us quite a bit about how to bring about effective charter school laws at the state level, and we can emulate that as to where we move next. Thanks to research, we know about what makes an effective charter school.

I’d like to focus on quality, focusing on growing the number of high quality charter schools and improving state laws. At the federal level, our focus is going to be on leveraging the tools available to grow the number of charter schools states we have and increase the access for low-income families.

What do you see as the biggest weaknesses of charter schools in the U.S. and charter school policy?
I don’t see this necessarily as a weakness, but I think to some extent some of the laws we have enacted in the past have been enacted under certain conditions that don’t offer operators all they need to run effective schools. You can’t run a school if you don’t have a building. Making sure state funding includes funding for facilities is a huge priority for charter schools. [State] allocation to charters is also not at the same place as for students that attend regular public school, so raising that investment. Funding and access to facilities are the greatest barriers to growth for charters.

What do you think is the proper role for the federal government in education policy in general and charter school policy in particular? We’ve made a lot of progress since President Clinton’s administration in moving forward the debate of the federal investment in K-12 policy, focusing it more on results, building greater accountability into how we spend federal dollars. The conversation has shifted from inputs to outcomes and making sure these dollars accomplish that for children. This administration has promoted that conversation.

Charter schools are in the public sector and will continue to be part of federal policy, but unfortunately federal funding is not reaching them at the same levels. As much as possible we need to make sure that whatever the federal government is doing is not getting in the way of states that are trying to do creative things with their charter school laws. As the federal government can incent[ivize] creative charter school laws, as with Race to the Top, I see that as a positive as well.

Your family immigrated to the United States from Iran when you were 14. Obviously, Iran has a very different culture and style of government than the U.S. Would you say this personal history has had an effect on how you view public policy and education, and how so? No one has asked me this question before. [laughter] We moved to the U.S., and even as a sophomore in high school, English was my third language. Living in rural Virginia meant I only had access to one high school, which thankfully happened to be one of the best in Virginia.

One of the things I had a challenge with when I moved, besides switching schools, switching countries and adapting to a new environment, was that I had access to only one school. This happened to be the one I was assigned to. Of course it was a rural community, so naturally it wouldn’t have many options. But had I been given more options, there might have been another school that was a better fit for me than just that particular high school. Having access to choices is important.

You’ve been involved in education policy for 20 years, now. Do you think the policy conversation has shifted in that time, and how are charter schools part of that? Certainly this is the 20-year anniversary of charter schools, and a lot has changed. One of the things I found interesting in this position is the innovation happening in this space now. I find it refreshing that something that started in Minnesota has taken root and expanded in so many places.

Charter schools have been able to very effectively bring in a number of stakeholders who were not previously involved in education to the table [such as community and entrepreneurial groups and alternative teacher training]. Charter schools were built as a laboratory for education, and in that respect they’ve met that goal and I view them as one of the fascinating reforms in U.S. education.

In the past 20 years we’ve seen a greater focus on outcomes and data, especially a help for low-income children. It’s tremendous. And charters have contributed to that discussion, because they’re about outcomes, about demonstrating results.