Parents drop off their children on the sidewalk. Teachers walk to their classrooms. Students mingle in the chilly morning, waiting for their seven-hour school day to begin.
This scene could be from any traditional American high school. But it’s not. This school has only four hundred students. Its classrooms are in portable buildings lined up like mobile homes. Most schoolwork takes place on laptops through an online platform called the Personalized Learning Plan (PLP). This is Summit Rainier, a public charter school in the Alum Rock neighborhood of San Jose, California. And it is part of a growing nationwide trend towards charter schools.
For fifty years, several politicians and education officials—now represented by President Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos—have promised to fix America’s public school system and make the country a world leader in academic performance. Charter schools in particular have been promoted as better suited to focus on student outcomes than public schools, since they are less constrained by oversight and regulations.
In many ways, Summit Rainier represents a key question for school choice advocates: Can charter schools consistently provide all students with a better education? Proponents argue that by giving schools like Rainier more autonomy and flexibility, they can compete with publicly funded schools while providing alternative options to families living in districts with high dropout rates and low test scores. But critics assert that charters drain government resources that could otherwise go towards improving public schools and lack the accountability measures to ensure money is not wasted on failed programs.
In 2011, a group of committed parents from East San Jose helped found Rainier to address the lack of schooling options in the area for their children. According to Jesse Roe, Executive Director of Rainier, his school is now one of 12 non-magnet charter schools in the East Side Union High School District. Yet within this district alone, charter schools vary tremendously in college acceptance rates, curricula, and demographics.
While all these charter schools aim to better prepare students for college and provide an education comparable to that offered by public schools, each has a specific focus. Roe describes Rainier’s mission as a three-part approach that promotes a diverse student body, prioritizes college admissions, and creates productive members of society.
For students who attend Rainier, this mission has created a community where students feel more comfortable than they would in a traditional public school. Austin Zhen is a senior at Summit Rainier who transferred from a public high school.
“At my old school, Piedmont Hills High School, I really didn’t like the class size. I felt like I didn’t get enough attention, one-on-one attention. I felt like I didn’t know my teachers and my peers didn’t know me,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
Idris Alexander, another senior, shared a similar experience transitioning from public high school to Rainier.
“Here at Summit, I feel a lot closer to everyone on campus whereas at public school, it was very distant,” he explained. Roe attributes this sense of community to Rainier’s small enrollment size and the relationships between parents, students, and the school administration.
Rainier provides individual attention to students by using technology that measures students’ progress through month-long projects and quizzes called content assessments. Teachers can then focus lessons to benefit the most students while providing challenging material to those who work ahead. The online platform was the result of a collaboration between Facebook and the Summit Public Schools charter network, Rainier’s parent organization, that focused on developing a personalized model to address individual learning while documenting students’ growth.
The results, however, have been mixed. According to a 2015 assessment, only 50 percent and 25 percent of Rainier juniors are proficient in English and mathematics, respectively. These numbers are comparable to those of Mt. Pleasant High School, a public school whose campus is shared with Rainier’s. However, Rainier has achieved 100 percent graduation rates for the past two years.
While Rainier’s charter reform measures represent only a small subset of the many tactics tried across the nation, it is unclear how scalable they will be given the varied needs of different local communities.
The school choice movement gained became a national force in the early 1990s when Minnesota and California passed school choice laws and President Bill Clinton LAW ‘73 took office. His administration oversaw an unprecedented expansion of charter schools across America with the passage of the Charter School Expansion Act in 1998.
This growth of charter schools continued under the administration of President George W. Bush ‘68. The landmark No Child Left Behind Act allowed schools that had “failed” for six years to be closed down or converted to charter schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of charters nationwide grew from 1,993 in 2001 to 4,388 charter schools in 2008. The Summit Public School charter system was part of this exponential growth—its first school opened in 2003 in Redwood City.
President Barack Obama’s administration continued to expand the funding available to the Federal Charter School program, increasing the program’s budget by over $100 million over seven years. Summit schools expanded along with this funding. They now operate nine schools along the West Coast.
President Obama’s tenure saw an uptick in charter school enrollment. The number of students attending charter schools jumped from 1.6 to 2.5 million, a change from three percent to six percent of the U.S. public school student population. This proliferation of charter schools has made charters more accessible to students across the country. At least three of Summit’s schools operate in low-income or working-class neighborhoods. Their student populations are intentionally diversified by race and income levels, matched to the neighborhoods they are in.
If his campaign rhetoric is any sign, President Trump will oversee a further expansion of charter schools like Summit.
In a speech delivered in Ohio in September, Trump called the current public school system a “government-run education monopoly.”
“The Democratic Party has trapped millions of African-American and Hispanic youth in failing government schools that deny them the opportunity to join the ladder of American success,” Trump said. These statements reflect longstanding claims of school choice advocates, who have blamed teachers unions and government bureaucracy as the main reason for dismal educational outcomes and unprepared students.
Trump has called for a $20 billion block grant for states with charter schools and private school voucher programs, to be funded by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars.” With no discussion of accountability or standards, it is unclear how a Trump administration will measure educational outcomes, nor is it clear which other federal programs will be rolled back to provide funding for his proposal.
It is also not clear that charter schools will provide better educational outcomes for the students they serve. In the Summit system, for example, while over 90 percent of its graduating classes are consistently accepted into four-year colleges, only 55 percent of its first graduating class was on track to graduate college within six years. According to Summit’s co-founder and CEO Diane Tavenner, this disparity forced a complete retooling of the school’s educational practices.
“Literally everything had to change,” she said in an interview with U.S. News & World Report. These changes began to be implemented in the 2011–12 school year—eight years after the first Summit school opened.
Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a well-known philanthropist and advocate for charter schools, school vouchers, and other school-choice initiatives. In many ways, her proposals and beliefs seem to align with, and even expand on, the policies of previous administrations in the last three decades that have called for educational options beyond public schools. For critics of school choice and the so-called “privatization” of education, DeVos will be a lightning rod. Public school advocates believe she will promote dangerous, ill-conceived educational practices designed to increase corporate profits at the expense of students.
Aside from school choice, DeVos has no track record on other issues of concern to educators, as she has no experience working in or for public schools. During her confirmation hearing, she appeared confused about the difference between the terms “growth” and “proficiency” when responding to a question from Senator Al Franken (D-MN).
Later, when Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked, “Do you think K-12 schools that receive federal funding should meet the same accountability standards, outcome standards?” DeVos responded that she supported accountability without giving any definition for that term.
Kaine followed up with a question on the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, asking whether it should apply to all schools that receive federal funding. DeVos responded, “I think that is a matter that’s best left to the states.” This has led to concern that a DeVos-run Department of Education would not enforce long-standing disability protections established by the federal government.
As heiress to a large family fortune, DeVos–along with her husband, the billionaire founder of Amway–has contributed money to efforts aimed at expanding school voucher programs across the country and lobbying for charter school access in states that had previously banned them. These actions have led to concerns that she might have significant conflicts of interest. During DeVos’ confirmation hearing, her assets were the subject of intense scrutiny, especially after the revelation that the Office of Government Ethics had not been able to complete a full review of her financial disclosures.
If she is confirmed by the Senate, DeVos’ tenure is likely to accelerate the long-term trend towards charter schools and private voucher programs while weakening existing education standards and accountability measures. With an aggressive pro-charter push by the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, individual states will likely respond to the proposed incentives and grants by increasing school choice. Such programs will provide more options for students, though the merits of these options remain contentious.
With increased autonomy and lax standards, school districts will face tough choices about dividing their federal and state dollars between public and charter schools. But support does not equal success. The continued operation and expansion of charters like Summit Rainier will require significant planning and forethought.
“It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of coordination,” said Roe. “Each school has its own identity. And each school has its own culture.”
But given the Trump administration’s tendency for confrontation and the potential for an aggressively hands-off Education Department, Roe acknowledged that “there will be a backlash for increasing school choice.” The fight over school choice may have no end in sight, but the new administration will probably tip the balance further in favor of charter schools. It may not be until the start of the next school year that it becomes clear where this decision leaves students.