Last week I interviewed Karega Rausch, the new Executive Director of the non-partisan National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Why should you care?
Because New Jersey’s 25-year-old charter school law is broken (everyone knows this) yet somehow we can’t muster the political will to fix it, despite the growing popularity of our public charter school sector, documented improvements in student outcomes, and long wait lists.
You’d think that would be enough to move forward. It’s not. If it were, then the NJ Department of Education wouldn’t have wasted two years of everyone’s time on a now-moribund “Charter School Act Review” that, on the DOE’s website, now leads the public to an error message.
This isn’t hard. We know what’s wrong. If we’re unsure, then NACSA has tons of resources on data-driven, research-based best practices. And then there’s the National Association of Public Charter Schools’ new database that says, “potential areas for improvement [in NJ] include increasing operational autonomy and ensuring equitable operational funding and equitable access to capital funding and facilities.”
Don’t believe me? Listen to Karega Rausch. He is not new to NACSA, having previously served as its vice president of research and evaluation. He brings with him the conviction that community voices, especially parents, must be the primary drivers when charters are part of efforts to increase equity and raise student achievement, particularly for those from historically marginalized backgrounds.Here’s our (lightly edited) conversation.
How did you get involved in this field?
I grew up in Denver, but went to college at DePauw University in Indiana. That’s where I met my wife and we’ve lived in Indianapolis ever since, with our two beautiful girls—one a seventh grader and the other a high school freshman. I think my commitment to equity and authorizing started at Indiana University, where I got my Ph.D. in educational psychology with a minor in education policy. While I was doing my graduate work, I was fortunate to be part of the Equity Project, which is focused on providing evidence-based information to issues around school discipline, special education and overall educational opportunity. There I helped districts dig into the disproportionate number of Black kids in special education. Did you know that Black students are classified two to four times more frequently than other ethnicities with specific learning disabilities, behavioral disorders and cognitive impairments? You don’t see this with, say, hearing impairments, but only categories that carry a stigma.
What impact did this all have on your career aspirations?
It became central to what I knew I wanted to do long-term—to create new and different opportunities for kids who deserved better than what they were getting. A professor friend of mine had a connection with someone involved in charter authorizing. I got a call from the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office and I took that opportunity, becoming assistant director of charter schools. I was really fortunate to be there for six years and work with two different mayors—one Democrat and one Republican. Both were passionate about educational inequity, sharing my core belief in the need to create more opportunities. I learned so much. It was there that I was introduced to NACSA, which was the only organization solely focused on creating better laws and authorizing practices. I joined the board of directors and then, three years later, took a position to lead research work. I was able to implement my vision of using a solid evidence base to advocate for what kids need.
This past Monday, exactly six years later, I was appointed CEO.
What makes for a good charter school authorizer?
For years states have operated on the assumption that authorizing new charter schools comes from the top-down. It’s become so bureaucratic. But my own deeply-held view—and this is how NACSA is evolving—is built on the premise that communities know what they need for their kids. Parents are assets! They have great ideas about what their kids need to learn. Innovation doesn’t come from state department edicts, but from community voices. We need to move towards community-centered authorizing. I would argue that this goes way beyond the typical ways of engaging communities. It has to be more than having a meeting, but actually listening to what their hopes and aspirations are for their kids, acknowledging that parents know more about their kids than anyone else. And then asking ourselves, “how can we deliver for them?”
Communities are not deficits, they’re assets. The days of being distant from communities are over.
Are there different models out there for authorizing?
I can see there being different models. For a long time we argued that each state must have one non-district authorizer like school boards, and that’s still the case. But maybe there should be an option for mayoral authorizing. That’s a different way of tapping into local, indigenous knowledge, putting it center-stage.
Karega, how do you do this without getting involved in messy charter school politics?
We’re not interested in people who hate all charter schools. We can’t just listen to the loudest voices in the room. We need to focus on indigenous knowledge, speak with pastors and YMCA directors and parents who tend to be quiet. This isn’t about charter schools vs. traditional schools. It’s about what kids need and we’ll only learn that from those close to the ground.
Do you see this movement towards empowering communities happening anywhere?
I do, Laura. Already some authorizers are moving in that direction and this centeredness needs to change what we do. For example, look at New Orleans where they did a comprehensive needs analysis and listened to lots of stakeholders who want new and different opportunities for children. Yes, we have a long way to go, but I’m so excited to work with folks. Everyone seems excited! At our virtual conference, which goes through October 30th, 900 people have registered.
And some things don’t need to change. At NACSA, we’ve always been focused on holding schools to high standards. Schools that fail students need to close, but the conversation with communities has to happen first. Are there turnaround options instead of actually closing? If you are grounded in the community, then you collaborate. Community voices—our most important asset—must center our conversations. They know what they need.
After all, what drives us at NACSA—and what’s always driven me—is fundamentally about equity. That’s the core of what we do and directly influences why community-centered authorizers matter. We have to get better outcomes for students of color and students with disabilities. And we get there by listening to the people who know their students best.