Charter school advocates to gather in Minneapolis for conference
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, June 18, 2012 –
More than 4,000 charter school advocates will return to their roots this week when they gather at the Minneapolis Convention Center for their annual national conference.
They will celebrate a movement that has transformed public education but still faces criticism. Charter schools are operated with tax dollars but are freed from many of the regulations of traditional schools in order to try innovative education methods.
The first charter school opened in St. Paul 20 years ago this fall. It was born out of a bipartisan effort in the Minnesota Legislature, and the system has been duplicated in 40 states. Nationwide, more than 2 million students now attend charter schools.
“I think what charter schools have been able to accomplish is tremendous,” said Nina Rees, the newly named president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Rees is a longtime education-reform advocate who worked at the U.S. Department of Education as head of the office of innovation and improvement and as an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. She stepped down as an education policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to take the charter school post.
Rees will be formally introduced this week at the conference, which runs Tuesday, June 19, through Friday and will feature a keynote address by comedian Bill Cosby, a longtime education advocate.
“This position is a culmination of a lot of things I have learned and done over the years,” Rees said last week in a phone interview. “I’ve always considered charters to be one of the biggest innovations in public education.”
Rees said she will call for charter supporters to embrace technology, improve accountability and continue fighting for funding, when she speaks at the conference Thursday. She believes the movement still has bipartisan support.
“I think people like and support charter schools. We need to make sure that comes with the proper funding,” Rees said. “We should focus on quality and replicating effective models and keep space open for newcomers. The movement will slow down if we just focus on what we have and keep newcomers at bay.”
There are some high-achieving charter schools in Minnesota and across the nation. But many of the schools struggle to outperform their traditional counterparts, especially in communities with high poverty rates.
A study by the Institute for Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School found the schools to be more segregated and students generally had lower test scores than traditional schools in low-income communities.
A recent examination of enrollment by the Center for School Change, a charter supporter and advocate for improving public education, shows how quickly the schools have grown in Minnesota.
Enrollment in the schools quadrupled in the past decade even as traditional public school enrollment declined. Still, just 5 percent of Minnesota students attend a charter school, up from a little more than 1 percent a decade ago.
Last year, enrollment in St. Paul charter schools declined for the first time since 2001.
Rees acknowledges that supporters and “authorizers” — organizations that sponsor and oversee the schools — need to intervene more quickly with poorly performing charters.
“I think the next 20 years need to be about quality,” Rees said. “Quality charter schools and quality charter school laws, so quality schools can flourish.”
Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/cmaganPiPress. Read our blog: Ahead of the Class at http://blogs.twincities.com/ education/.