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Indy Q&A: Former director on charter schools’ growth, diversification since 2019

Rebecca Feiden is leaving the State Public Charter School Authority for a role with a national organization that mentors new leaders in education.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education

The leader of the State Public Charter School Authority stepped down last Friday after about four years in the role and moving onto a new role where she will get to work on developing new education leaders nationwide. 

During an interview with The Nevada Independent last week, Rebecca Feiden said much of her term as the executive director of the state agency was defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, which began about a year after she was appointed to the role. 

Like other public schools, charter schools shut down after the COVID-19 outbreak during the 2019-20 school year. While other large school districts across the country, including the Clark County School District, decided to offer classes virtually the following school year as a safety precaution, Feiden said some Nevada charter schools, which are governed by individual boards that often oversee a single campus or a few campuses, went against the grain and reopened partially or completely. 

Feiden said these decisions were made thoughtfully, and reinforced her belief in charter schools as more nimble systems that are able to respond to their communities faster than large systems where school boards often make decisions that affect hundreds of campuses.

“As a former educator, as a former assistant principal, one of the things that I really believe is that the people who are on the ground working with kids every day, talking to parents every day are the ones who are best informed to make decisions about their students, and that ultimately, is what our schools got to do. Not somebody sitting in the central office for the most part,” she said. 

Feiden submitted her resignation to the governor’s office in mid-August.

She was appointed to the role in April 2019 by then-Gov. Steve Sisolak. Prior to that position, she served as the acting executive director of the now-defunct Achievement School District program,  an initiative from 2015 that converted underperforming traditional public schools into charters in an effort to improve them.

The State Public Charter School Authority authorizes, oversees and monitors public charter schools across Nevada. There are nearly 80 charter school campuses teaching approximately 60,000 students statewide.

In the past four years, Feiden oversaw the launch of 25 new charter schools as well as progress in diversifying the system’s students, which has often been criticized for being more homogenous than the state's student body at large. 

Feiden said the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch has grown from 34 percent in 2019 to 46 percent today, are learning English as a second language, also known as English language learners (from 7 percent to 9 percent), or have a disability (from 9 percent to 10 percent). 

Feiden is moving into a new role as chief of new schools for Building Excellent Schools (BES), a national nonprofit organization that works with charter school leaders. In the new role, she’ll have a chance to work with budding charter school leaders as part of the organization’s fellowship program. 

“I have a really great opportunity to work on a national level to support quality charter school growth and while I’m sad to leave the SPCSA, this is the right time for me both professionally and personally,” she said. 

Feiden said the new job will also allow her to be closer to family who live outside of Nevada and spend more time with her baby. 

Feiden spoke with The Nevada Independent about the successes and challenges Nevada’s charter school system has faced over the past four years. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Explanations of certain terms or ideas have been added in italics as needed.

Students at Learning Bridge Charter School on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/ The Nevada Independent)

What’s changed on the public charter school landscape in Nevada in your four years as executive director?

I think we've come a really long way in terms of providing more equitable access to charter schools and educational choices within our community, in particular, through strategically opening new schools in communities that historically have not had as much access, looking at how we provide intentional outreach in communities that have existing low-performing schools. 

Those are the biggest shifts I've seen, and I think that's reflected in the shifts in demographics that we've seen over the last four years in terms of the increasing percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, the increase in English language learners and students with disabilities.

I think a lot of that’s a product of kind of intentional focus on equitable access. To be clear, I wouldn't put a flag in the ground and say, we've arrived, we’re there. I think that there's certainly room to continue to improve, but I think we've made a tremendous amount of progress in that arena, and it's something I'm super proud of, and I think our schools are proud of as well.

What were your big takeaways from the job?

A lot of my job has been marked by the pandemic. The pandemic started close to 12 months after I began, and dominated for a couple of years. I think one of my biggest takeaways from that was it reinforced my beliefs around the opportunity that charter schools have that’s unique from school districts: to be responsive to their communities.

During the pandemic, our schools really adjusted course where they needed to, pivoted where they needed to, got creative and did things differently where they need to, and I think that was really a function of the fact that they are smaller, that they have local boards that are not overseeing a huge school district, but just a handful of schools at most. 

I'm a big believer in public education. I think school districts play an important role in our education landscape, and I think charter schools do too. 

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Nevada charter schools today? 

As a community just holistically, I think we just continue to make sure that all families across our community are aware of the educational options they have before them, whether those are magnet schools within the school district, whether it's charter schools.

Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of families in our community that just still aren't aware of some of the options that they have and so I think that's just something that we can continue to work on as a large educational community.

The transportation funding is really exciting. (A total of $14 million for charter school transportation costs over the next two years was allocated as part of Gov. Joe Lombardo’s omnibus K-12 education bill, AB400. Charter schools interested in receiving funding must apply for them through the State Public Charter School Authority.)

But on the other side of that, I think … finding out in June that there is money available, and trying to figure out how to stand up the infrastructure to do that work is a tremendous challenge. I'm proud of the schools that are seeing that challenge and jumping into the fire and trying to figure it out. 

The school choice movement has been seen as a contentious topic in Nevada, with many public education advocates taking a stand against ideas like school vouchers since they are seen as taking public funding away from traditional public schools. Do you think charter schools suffer unjustly under this broader criticism of school choice?

I think it's a political conversation. I think it's a conversation amongst people who are involved in politics. I think parents and families and students are rarely having that conversation. I think the conversation that they're having is where's the best school for my kid.

I think sometimes the disconnect between the people having this kind of political conversation and the people who are actually served by our education system, it's almost a disservice. 

I think our system would be better served if we would try to center on the voices of parents and families that are just not interested in those conversations and are interested in what do my kids need, and how do I get the best education with my child?

Nevada Prep students disembark from a school bus on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

This year, the Legislature allocated $14 million for the next two years to fund charter school transportation. How is the process going for this year? Are charter schools applying for this funding, and getting approved for the $7 million set aside for the 2023-24 school year? 

We've approved 11 schools. Over a million dollars so far has been awarded. We've been in touch with a number of schools that are in the process of submitting or maybe submitted an early version to us. But generally speaking, there's at least $5.5 million left. 

The first $7 million I believe has to be basically used by June 30. Anything that's left would revert back to the state. 

Right now we're planning on having the applications open until Sept. 30. We are going to close it and take a look at enrollment numbers.

We do have some schools that grew significantly from the prior year, so we're going [to] …  ask if they wanted to seek an increase to their award before we reopen the application

So if a school had 100 students last year, they applied for funding for those 100 students, but they ended up with 200 kids for this school year and they're like, ‘Oh, we have these extra 100 kids. We actually want the extra money to pay for another bus.’ We would want to make sure that they can do that before we will accept additional applications.

What are your hopes for the future of charter schools going forward? 

I think we've had 25 new charter schools open in the time I've been here, we’ve increased the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. We’ve come a really long way. My hope is that we continue on that trajectory. 

Ultimately, my hope, like any community, is that you want Nevada to be a place where we have a really robust ecosystem that supports our education. So whether it's charter schools, district schools, I hope that all those schools are working together. 

I hope that there's a space where folks can learn from each other. I think that was one of the original (intentions) behind charter schools, and sometimes that gets lost. But I think there's an opportunity for folks to learn from each other. I think that goes both ways. I hope that that ecosystem can help our schools grow and ultimately really meet the needs of Nevada. 

Education is about helping people to become who they want to be and do whatever it is they want to do, and so I really hope that our charter schools can really contribute to a really vibrant, dynamic education system that does that for all of Nevada's families. 


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