State of the Movement 2008 Speech by NAPCS President Nelson Smith
Nelson Smith, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President
New Orleans, June 24, 2008Still We Rise Has it been 14 months since Albuquerque? It seems like yesterday we were all wearing cowboy hats and shopping for turquoise. So why did we move the show to New Orleans this year? I mean apart from the Creole gumbo and the beignets and the laissez les bontemps roulez. It’s because of this: Still we rise. We borrowed this title from Maya Angleou because there’s no better place in all of America to show how a people can literally rise from despair and build a new future. We’re so proud that public charter schools have been at the center of this great story. Not just because the majority of New Orleans students are attending our schools, but because charter schooling is helping to give them a chance at a future they would have been denied just a few short years ago. And look at the second part of our convention theme: Achieving Academic Excellence at Scale. That’s what’s happening here. Charter school kids are leaping ahead on the state tests and the schools are doing it without the old, scandal-ridden central office– instead, schools themselves are calling the shots, doing business with a constellation of nonprofits that are there to help, not to get in their business. Groups like New Schools for New Orleans, Teach for America, the Cowen Institute, New Leaders for New Schools, The New Teacher Project, KIPP, The Baptist Community Ministries and the list goes on. Media types have been talking about New Orleans as the “great experiment” for our movement so it should be no surprise that we’re here, 3000 strong, to cheer on our brave compatriots and to learn from them and from each other how to make it work across the country. What do we mean, rise? Well, surely we are rising in numbers. We are 1.2 million students strong, in 4,300 schools. We still enroll significantly more low-income student and children of color than district-run schools. We’ve added 1,600 new charter schools, and 500,000 new students, in the past four years alone. Some say that’s a drop in the bucket; after all, charter schools only account for 3 percent of public school students nationally. But in city after city, especially those where the traditional system isn’t working for so many kids, parents are hungry for strong new choices in public education — and they’re choosing charter schools in droves. Every year we take a look at “market share” and publish a “Top Ten” list of cities with the highest concentration of charter kids. There are a lot of ties, so last year there were 19 cities in the Top Ten, places where more than 13 percent of kids were in charters. This year our top ten list includes 29 cities! And take a look at this; as of this year there are 8 communities with more than 20% of students in charter schools. Big towns like Kansas City, and Dayton. Not Baltimore but D.C. now, and we can’t forget the Motor City. But it’s not just about numbers. It’s about achievement. And the news keeps getting better. You’ve heard me talk about the alliance’s “Meta-Analysis” of charter school achievement studies. Now it’s up to 70 studies, going back to 2001–not done by us, but by everyone from the U.S. Government to the American Federation of Teachers. Thirty-one of the 40 studies that look at performance over time show that kids in charter schools are gaining faster than their peers in other public schools. And when you consider that our kids often start out academically behind those peers –then you see that charters are fulfilling a great purpose: closing the achievement gaps between the haves and have-nots in our society. So, it’s not surprising that parents are lining up in droves to get their kids into charter schools. The last time we looked, there are about 350,000 kids on waiting lists! We could open another 1100 charter schools today if we could expand fast enough to meet just this existing demand. The Rest of the Story And so now we come to what Paul Harvey would call “The rest of the story.” There are reasons we can’t grow as far and as fast as parents need. Believe it or not, there are actually some people who don’t think there ought to be more charter schools! People who stunt our growth with caps, deny us nourishment by inequitable funding, and folks literally stand in the schoolhouse door by denying our kids the right to public education facilities paid for by taxpayer dollars! There have been some battles in the last year! There have been times when it looked like we might have 37 or 38 charter states instead of 40. New Hampshire’s charters almost had to shut down because of funding cuts. Tennessee had to fight back against a “Sunset” provision that would have made its charter history. The new governor of Ohio called for a moratorium, and the state board in Nevada imposed one, out of the blue. And now the Delaware legislature is flirting with the M word, and even in D.C., there’s talking about clamping down on one of the most robust charter communities in the country. But guess what? Despite all the threats and near misses, still we rise. We rose in Wisconsin, when the legislature sided with the charter movement and overturned a court ruling that would have put the state’s virtual charters out of business. We rose in New Jersey, when the nation’s biggest gap in funding got sliced and sliced again, with the help of a scrappy state charter organization. We rose in Utah, where a cap was lifted and funding was enhanced. We rose in New York state, which after a decade finally eased a charter cap that had started to pinch when parents were clamoring for new choices. We rose in Colorado where the charter facilities fund was doubled. We rose in California, where the state charter association wrestled la unified to the ground and got a promise to follow the law and provide facilities to charter schools. And just a few weeks ago, we rose in Georgia, when the governor signed a bill creating a new, state-level charter authorizer that will give charter founders a chance to bring their vision to reality. Where did we get these wins? They’re a tribute to the skill and tenacity of our state leaders, people like Caprice Young and Bill Phillips and Jim Griffin, and Tony Roberts and Jessani Gordon, and of course Senn Brown and Caroline Roemer. But they’ve been made possible because more and more policymakers realize that charter schools are here to stay and that our kids deserve the same chance as their friends in district schools. Every time your city councilman or state senator comes to visit your school, “Charter School” stops being about abstract causes, or ideology, or partisan politics, and starts being about kids and teachers and parents. So that’s why every one of you has an obligation to make sure that the folks who make laws and design policies see the real story of our movement. Even though chartering is a political football in some states, we’re really encouraged that our movement is attracting strong new leaders like Gov. Bobby Jindal, and bipartisan support is growing at the national level. Both presidential candidates talk about Charters on the campaign trail. The leaders of Congressional Committees in both Houses work closely with our movement. And we kicked off National Charter Schools Week with the fourth-ranking House Democrat, Rahm Emanuel, who has sponsored legislation calling for $300 million in new funding to expand charter schools serving kids in the neediest areas. So we want to welcome political friends of all kinds into our terrific schools. But of course, it doesn’t do any good if these folks happen to walk into, or hear about, a charter school that’s not living up to its charter. It’s amazing how much damage can be done by one school that fails to educate students, or worse, makes unethical use of public funding. You know it in your own communities, and we all know it, and feel it, as citizens of a movement that prides itself on offering a better way. And so we have a responsibility to act, to make quality our standard and to insist that the words “Charter School” stand for high achievement and impeccable integrity. I’m proud of how this movement is taking this issue to heart, on so many fronts. Authorizers are getting tougher, both in approving new schools and renewing those already established. State charter associations, which began as advocates and defenders of beleaguered schools, are embracing quality standards for their members and sponsoring innovative new programs to help schools improve. National organizations are bringing together panels of movement leaders to help define standards of practice in the new professional of charter authorizing and charter support. And we’re joining together to help clarify what we mean when we talk about “Quality” Charter Schools. And you know how important it is that we shape that definition, that we talk not only about hitting the proficiency bar on state tests but also about measuring student growth no matter where students are when they arrive in our classrooms, and by asking whether each charter school is fulfilling its unique mission. But when we talk about quality and accountability, let’s be clear that it’s not about organizations, and it’s not about creating data to satisfy regulators in the state capital. Accountability is first and foremost about doing what it takes to improve achievement for 1.2 million kids in charter schools across the land. So, every day in our schools, there are principals and teachers drilling down on those interim assessments, trying to figure out how to make sure that Jamal gets get sentence structure or that Maria gets her mind around the Pythagorean Theorem. And there are board members struggling to refine a budget so that more dollars can stay in the classroom, even when the landlord wants to raise the rent. And there are, of course, the students themselves, who every day defy stereotypes about “distracted learners” or “disinterested middle schoolers”– and who come to school demanding to be taught! This willingness to look hard at our own performance, and to demand more of ourselves, is what makes the charter movement so impressive. And you see it at every level. And that’s why I say the state of our movement is strong. The ôShort List” What can possibly stand in our way? Nothing, if we’re smart enough and work hard enough. But there’s a short list of three things we ought to worry about: First: re-regulation. It’s like that old story. If you want to cook a frog, don’t drop him in boiling water cause he’ll just jump out. Put him in cool water and turn the fire up real slowly. Sometimes I feel like Legislators and Judges and state Ed departments are slowly turning up the heat, and we’re not reacting fast enough. Bit by bit, charter autonomy is getting eaten away in state after state. Sometimes it’s our opponents that pile on the new rules– but sometimes it’s our well-meaning friends. We need to let all of them know charters are all different and if one screws up you don’t issue a new stack of paperwork for all the others to fill out. But for this argument to stick, we need to be tough on our own and make sure that charter accountability works. Second: Confusion about “Public.” Ok, repeat after me: Charter schools are public schools. We say it till we’re blue in the face, but only 38% of voters “get it” according to our latest poll. In fact, another survey found that the majority of people think charters charge tuition and teach religion. This isn’t a simple thing to turn around, and the alliance is working on it every day. But as a movement, we also need to ask ourselves whether we’re fully living up to that word “public.” People may well get confused when they see a charter school that resists public accountability for its performance. Or when they see schools that want to select the kids who enroll. Or when they see schools that cross what should be a bright line between being a public school and being a sectarian school. Good people can disagree about some of these things. But every time we help confuse the public about our public responsibilities, we cut into the support we need for equitable public funding and help with charter facilities. That’s a cost we cannot afford. Third, as Ben Franklin said, we must all hang together– or most assuredly we will all hang separately. What he said about the other signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 rings true for the charter movement today. Charter people are fiercely independent, and we’ve made huge strides in every chartering state by storming the battlements when there was a crisis. But these are new times. Because we are growing, we are becoming a bigger target. And you know as well as I that the opposition is well-financed, well-organized, and relentless. That’s why the alliance is making a new commitment to work with state charter associations to bolster their capacity for effective advocacy. And that’s why, when they ask you to march, you need to lace up your boots, like charter parents and supporters did when the speaker of the California assembly threatened their funding. Now maybe I’m preaching to the choir here. The 3,000 people at this conference are the ones already in the vanguard. But take this message home, to those who are not here, to those who have not joined the state association, to those who don’t think they have the time to write a letter to the editor or testify before the city council or get on the bus to the state capitol. Tell them that every one of their voices must be heard, that the best testimony to the value of public charter schools comes from the teachers who have new professional opportunities, the parents who now have a partner invested in the future of their child, and the students themselves, and the growing multitude of charter alumni, who are the most eloquent and impressive testimony to the success of our movement. When I see these faces and hear their stories, I know why we, as a movement, will continue to rise. Thank you, each and every one of you, for the work you do every day to improve the lives of 1.2 million children in public charter schools.