At its July meeting, the State Board of Education voted to approve Alex Quigley’s appointment to the Charter Schools Advisory Board (CSAB). An eight-year veteran of CSAB until 2021, Alex is also the executive director of Durham Charter School, a Teach for America alumnus, and the father of four children.
Kristen Blair, the Coalition’s communications director, spoke with Alex as he prepares to return to CSAB. We share the full interview below, featuring Alex’s views on school transformation, the state’s charter movement, and legislation converting CSAB into a Charter School Review Board.
You began your career in education as a teacher. Could you share more about those formative years and how your path led you to public charter schools?
Alex Quigley: I started out through Teach for America, teaching second grade in rural Mississippi. I worked in one of the lowest-performing schools in Mississippi, with a student population that was 100 percent African American and 100 percent low-income. Working in one of the poorest areas of the country was a transformative experience. I met so many amazing kids and parents who cared deeply about their child’s education but did not have the opportunity for an excellent education. That’s Teach for America’s mission: All students will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education. I drank the Kool-Aid on that! Being in the Delta created in me the real conviction that all kids can achieve at the highest levels, and that all parents want the best for their kids.
I worked in one school with terrible leadership and another school with amazing leadership. Both had the same demographics, so I saw the impact a principal could have. I realized that was what I hoped to do long-term, instead of becoming a lawyer like my mom wanted. I’m really glad I’m not a lawyer!
After our first child was born, my wife and I moved to North Carolina to be closer to family. Teach for America asked me to run this region. I wanted to be a principal or an assistant principal, but it was hard to find a job in a traditional public school, coming from out of state. At Teach for America, I worked with school leaders and superintendents to put corps members in their schools, and I built a relationship with a charter school leader. A couple of years later, he called me as he was transitioning out and said he wanted a Teach for America alum to run Maureen Joy Charter School. I said, ‘I think I might have someone for you,’ meaning myself! The board took a chance on me.
I was inspired by charter schools, given my work in a high performing organization with clear metrics, goals, and accountability. At Teach for America, you’re responsible for getting it done; you produce results and there isn’t a lot of red tape. So, I was attracted to charter schools because I felt like I would have an opportunity to be creative and not be beholden to a school district. And Maureen Joy served a student population that was similar to students I had worked with before.
Tell us more about your work with disadvantaged students and your current role leading Durham Charter, a Title I school. How have those experiences affected your ideas about what works in education?
Alex: My ideas about what works have been most impacted by studying and replicating best practices at charter schools, primarily around the Northeast. Urban charter schools have been the most successful education reform in the last 20-plus years. The data back this up. People can say such practices are not scalable—and obviously, there are a lot of criticisms of charter schools, like they’re creaming the kids—but all of the studies run counter to those beliefs. So, I spent a lot of time visiting high performing charters, particularly in the Northeast but also in California. A number of Teach for America alumni are part of these charter schools, so I have a rich network of people I can reach out to and learn from.
Replicating those practices—along with everything that has come out of Uncommon Schools and Relay School of Education—has been absolutely instrumental. I also studied schools here in North Carolina, like Henderson Collegiate, KIPP Gaston, and Sugar Creek Charter School, to figure out how to replicate their best practices.
The number one thing that school leaders can do is go to schools that are working and replicate what they’re doing. Unfortunately, I don’t think that happens very much in public education.
Why do you think that is?
Alex: One reason is an inattention to results. There are a lot of feelings in education. I don’t mean that in a bad way. A lot of it is about how people feel about schools, and a lack of attention to what a school is accomplishing in terms of outcomes and school culture.
In addition, visiting schools isn’t a traditionally accepted mode of professional development. Most professional development—conferences or training—isn’t delivered well. Good professional development can be valuable, but most of it is a waste of time. We should be in schools learning from both high performing traditional [schools] and charters. I have looked at the data spreadsheet and identified a number of traditional public schools I’d like to visit because I know they are doing amazing things for kids. To me, it’s quite simple: Let’s identify the top 10 percent of all high growth schools last year—schools that, like mine, actually performed better than before the pandemic in both growth and proficiency—and do an intensive analysis. We should have people from DPI (the Department of Public Instruction) coordinating visits for school leaders that want to learn from what’s happening on those campuses. We should invite researchers from our state’s universities to do extensive data analysis and help us codify the practices further that drove results. The solutions exist because it’s being done.
That’s one reason I’m a huge believer in charter schools. All of the decision-making, innovation, and planning is concentrated in one school, unless it’s a network. But even those networks grew out of a school. It’s hard to make change when it isn’t at the school level. Charter schools allow the flexibility for individual schools to make change. There’s risk associated with that, of course: A bad leader can taint a charter school more than a district. But any initiative in the state is only as good as the principals on the ground. They’re the ones who decide what gets done and what doesn’t.
In 2022, Durham Charter was recognized as an ESEA School of Distinction after years as a low-performing school. What are some strategies you employed to alter the growth and performance trajectory of this school and other charter schools in which you have worked?
Alex: There are so many different pieces to it. Power to hire and fire, which is lacking—even though it’s harder to fire people now because you’re worried you can’t replace them. As a school leader, being able to make decisions about staffing is huge. It’s everything. Power to move money where it needs to go to drive academics. Power to select curriculum that will drive student achievement.
Curriculum, budget, HR/staffing: Those are the three most important things. And then you have the ability to set expectations and operations to support academics. Pivot everything in the school toward academic growth.
Shifting to charter school oversight: You’ve been appointed to CSAB again. As you prepare to reprise your role, what do you hope to accomplish for the state’s charter movement?
Alex: Education was always important—and innovation in education has been a priority—but coming on the heels of the pandemic, that’s truer now than before. Results and outcomes for kids in America are tragic. Kids from low-income backgrounds suffered the most from the pandemic. We have to do better for them. For me, charter schools have always been a lever to move, to help low-income kids achieve higher outcomes. I’ll continue to have that be top of mind for me.
The other piece is that we have to be highly disciplined about who gets through the charter school pipeline and the selection process. I’ve always said authorization is the number one tool in terms of accountability. If we lower the bar for authorization and complain when a school isn’t good, that’s a problem. If we have a high bar for entry, we will have fewer issues for schools. It’s a lot harder to close a school than it is to not move one forward. I’ve always been an advocate for rigor in the selection process, and also because it’s a huge investment of taxpayer dollars. So, I advocate for a high bar for authorization, a high bar for renewal, and an aggressive approach to closing low performing schools that cannot over time get better.
Charter schools trade accountability for autonomy. The deal that we’re giving charter school boards and leaders is, ‘We give you autonomy. Don’t mess it up. If you do, you don’t get another chance.’
How would you characterize the opportunities ahead for North Carolina’s charter schools?
Alex: The opportunity is to continuously improve the charter sector in the state and close gaps between high performing schools and lower performing schools. Part of the process of that is closing schools that cannot make the leap. We need to ensure we have rigorous authorization processes so that only the best schools get to open.
We should work collectively with public schools and the State Board of Education to move the needle for kids in the state. There is still a disturbing lack of collaboration between charters and traditional public schools. This isn’t at the DPI level. We have a great Superintendent and I think the State Board has been excited about quality charter schools that are getting things done for kids. There is a lot of opportunity for us to learn from each other in the future and I would hope that plays out. I remain optimistic about that, and I always have been.
What do you see as key or ongoing challenges for charters?
Alex: There are a number of issues. There remains a perception problem for charter schools. People purposely lump charters together as a monolith and use broad strokes to paint the movement. It isn’t possible because charter schools in North Carolina are really diverse in how they are structured, who they serve, and how they serve those students. It’s convenient and effective for detractors to oversimplify. That’s an issue, and it’s going to continue to be a challenge.
I’m also worried about the scope of work of the Office of Charter Schools. They have too much work and not enough staff, especially with the ACCESS grant sunsetting. The additional staff for the grant is going away. That staff works very hard, but it’s difficult for them to meet all the needs as the large number of charter schools has ballooned. More and more, schools need support, training, and accountability. It’s difficult for the Office of Charter Schools to execute on all of these three priorities effectively. I believe Ashley Baquero has done a superb job taking over from David Machado—also a great leader—but the job continues to get increasingly complex. They simply need more staff.
Additionally, newly approved schools need longer to get open. We’re seeing lots of charters struggle to open and then request a delay, which then increases the number of students they need to recruit when they do open. Let’s give them an option to select a two-year planning period.
Finally, with the ACCESS grant going away, charters not connected to a CMO (charter management organization) or EMO (education management organization) will have an increasingly difficult time opening effectively. Schools need funding to start up. We need to figure out a way to get them an infusion of capital as soon as they earn approval. Once the state gives them the green light, we should do everything possible to get them to open successfully. A big part of that is about money. It’s nearly impossible to open without start-up funds if you don’t have a CMO or EMO supporting your launch. Even if the state were able to give schools a low-interest loan rather than a grant that schools would pay back over a 10-year period, it would be better than nothing.
H.B. 618, Charter School Review Board, has passed the House and Senate. That bill converts CSAB into a Charter School Review Board, with sole authority to grant charter approvals and renewals. Could you share your perspective on work ahead for the Review Board? [Note: On Friday afternoon, July 7, the Governor vetoed H.B. 618.]
Alex: I would hope that if we are a Charter School Review Board, we have power to close schools and we do that. We also need to be rigorous in who we give opportunities to have a charter. As a State Board of Education appointee, I see that part of my role is to understand the positions of the State Board and represent those as best I can, while also advocating strongly for the charter sector, as I always have.
What would you like Coalition members and other charter operators to know about you and your approach to leadership? Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?
Alex: I am a deep believer in school choice, and I have exercised it for my own kids. Charter schools provide school choice in a manner that can respond to communities—and demand for choices in a manner that the state retains some measure of regulation. They also provide it easily to parents who would otherwise never be able to afford a house zoned for a high performing school, private school tuition, or even homeschooling. People love to talk about equity in education. How can it ever be equitable if only middle and upper income parents have school choice? I believe school choice is the only way to liberate parents from a system made up of increasingly politicized school boards and bureaucratic school districts that make decisions from a distance about the future of their children.
On a personal level, I have four children, each of whom has had a unique educational pathway. Across our kids, they have collectively attended a traditional public school, a private school, a charter school—and all of them have been homeschooled at some time. Clearly, I have leveraged the power of school choice to meet my children’s needs. I want all parents, regardless of their race, income, native language, or immigration status to have the same power.