“Evaluate Your Strengths and Weaknesses Honestly”

After leading the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools since 2012, Nina Rees stepped down in the past month. During Rees’s tenure, charter schools flourished but also became increasingly controversial. With that in mind, it seems like a good time to catch up with Rees and get her candid perspective, now that she is no longer the official voice of the charter sector. Before becoming the face of nearly 8,000 charter schools in the country, Rees was the first head of innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: So, Nina, how would you describe the current state of charter schooling?

Nina Rees

Nina Rees: On one hand, the charter school movement is gaining serious momentum: It is the only part of the public school system that is growing, we have achieved several legislative victories at the state level in 2023, and recent research by CREDO demonstrates our clear impact on student achievement before the pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted the demand for more options, and our sector has risen to meet that demand. On the other hand, since the pandemic, a lot has changed—leadership turnover in many schools, the establishment of new schools in communities unfamiliar to the charter sector, and the high turnover rate in the teacher workforce have made it challenging to leverage the increased demand. Additionally, the political forces favoring the establishment have made it more difficult to expand rapidly.

Hess: Can you elaborate on the “political forces of the establishment”? Who are you referring to, and how have they impacted the pace of charter expansion?

Rees: Teachers unions are often highlighted as the driving force in the establishment, but school district administrators, elected school boards, and parents and taxpayers—who have a vested interest in their local schools—are also part of the establishment to varying degrees. Schools are tightly connected to communities, and community pride can make it challenging to have honest discussions about the effectiveness of schools and whether they are serving all students equally. Nevertheless, unions hold a lot of power in education because of their close ties with school districts. In the private sector, conflicts between unions and employers are resolved when both sides find ways to fulfill their needs while providing excellent service to customers. In the public education space, unions have realized that administrators, elected officials, and community supporters are often the most important customers. Consequently, students are rarely the top priority, even though they should be. While many people support efforts to provide a quality education, most want it done without disrupting the system.

Hess: You have mentioned previously that your personal experience with traditional public schooling influenced your perspective on choice. Can you expand on that?

Rees: When my family moved to the U.S. in 1983, I started attending Blacksburg High School, the only high school in Blacksburg, Virginia. This school was deeply ingrained in the community. The entire town would attend our football and basketball games, and families from all walks of life sent their children to this school. The community spirit was wonderful, but it also made discussing alternative choices difficult. If you didn’t want to go to BHS, you had to move to another town. While I don’t believe anyone will disrupt the way things are done in Blacksburg, I do think that school choice advocates are naive if they blame all the problems on unions.

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