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January 27 2020

Nina Rees

by Charlotte Hays

Nina Shokraii Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, knows what it is like to live in a society with limited choices. She also knows what it is to take a stand, which comes in handy since the charter school movement is increasingly under pressure. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren has taken a particularly strong stance against charter schools. “Democrats used to be key champions for charter schools,” says Rees. But that has changed. “Unfortunately, most of the presidential candidates this year aren’t taking their cues from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who supported charter schools, but from unions and other special interest groups that don’t.” Rees diplomatically adds that the charter movement is more aligned with the Democratic candidates on issues such as increasing funding for low-income students, who attend charter schools at high rates.

The wake-up call came when Nina, then 14, and several of her friends were arrested on the ski slopes. Nina was not sufficiently cloaked to meet the standards of the Islamic Republic’s dress code. She spent two nights in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. “It was scary for me.  But it was probably scarier for my parents,” says Rees. They had no idea where she was. The family left Iran shortly afterwards.

Rees argues that it’s the success of the charter movement that has attracted adverse attention. “It’s worth noting that charter schools are only 6% of the overall public-school system,” she says.  “And they are public schools.  But the reason the opposition is reacting is because we’ve been successful.  If we weren’t successful, I don’t think they would have been as vocal and as mobilized against us.”  

Rees is used to opposition, though. Nina Shokraii’s early life was spent in post-Islamic Revolutionary Iran. Her parents chose to remain in Iran after the Revolution. They hoped that things would return to normal. 

The wake-up call came when Nina, then 14, and several of her friends were arrested on the ski slopes. Nina was not sufficiently cloaked to meet the standards of the Islamic Republic’s dress code. 

The girls were locked up in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, site of the torture and executions of the Islamic Republic’s political prisoners. Nina’s parents had no idea where she was. “It was scary for me.  But it was probably scarier for my parents,” says Nina, who spent two nights in the prison, sleeping on the floor. The teenager eventually signed a document admitting to her “crime” and was released. The family determined to leave immediately and got out soon afterwards.

It was still easy to leave Iran then, but difficult to take assets out of the country. Nina’s father, a former Fulbright Scholar (who had received his Doctorate in the U.S.) and professor at Tehran University, was fortunate that he was able to obtain a visiting professorship at Virginia Tech and the family settled in Blacksburg, Va., where Nina was enrolled as a sophomore in Blacksburg High School. In many ways, Nina’s experiences at Blacksburg High School were tailor-made to prepare her for a career in the educational choice movement.

Blacksburg High and Nina were not a good fit. Her locker was vandalized within a few months of enrolling in the school – an act that was never reported to the police.  “Blacksburg High School was one of the best high schools in Virginia, but they did not know what to do with me,” Nina recalls. The experience helped make her a school choice advocate.

Blacksburg High and Nina were not a good fit. Her locker was vandalized within a few months of enrolling in the school – an act that was never reported to the police.  “Blacksburg High School was one of the best high schools in Virginia, but they did not know what to do with me,” Nina recalls. “They made me graduate by the end of my junior year because I had all these credits that they didn’t know what to do with. Even though it was a great school and did well by most of the kids, it wasn’t right for me. They did the best they could, but I wasn’t the norm.”

Rees did like one thing about attending Blacksburg High, however: She didn’t have to go to school all over again after the school day officially ended. In Iran, after the Islamic Republic took control of the schools, some families such as Nina’s tried to continue their children’s education as it had been. “I used to go to school after school,” she recalls. “My parents and those of many of my friends enrolled us in a correspondence program to continue our studies toward the baccalaureate we would have gotten had we stayed in the French Lycee we attended before the revolution. I remember being constantly in school, either in these tutoring sessions, or regular school.” 

After Blacksburg High, Rees attended Virginia Tech and then moved to Washington, D.C., eager to work on Capitol Hill. She also took night courses to get a degree in international studies from George Mason University. She was an intern in Virginia Republican Senator John Warner’s office and subsequently worked as a full-fledged staff member for Florida Republican Rep. Porter Goss and spent a year working for Americans for Tax Reform as an analyst.

But it wasn’t until Clint Bolick (now an Associate Justice on Arizona’s Supreme Court) hired Rees to work at the Institute for Justice, that she started to develop a particular passion for school choice. The Institute for Justice, which Bolick co-founded, litigated on behalf of parents who wanted greater educational options.

Rees recognizes that parents don’t see school choice as a partisan issue. But because many charter school teachers aren’t legally required to join a union, the unions have fought aggressively against charter schools, even in the face of strong evidence of charter school success. 

“I loved the clients they were representing,” Rees says, “and I think because of my own experiences, I fundamentally connected with these families. Access to the right school, regardless of your income and your status in life, can make a huge difference, especially in this country.  If you want to reach the American dream what you really need is a strong education that puts you on the path to that college degree or a skilled career.”

As she became established in the education policy world, Nina also met her future husband, Matt Rees.  Matt wrote for the Weekly Standard and has since founded his own editorial consulting firm called GEONOMICA. She and Matt were introduced through a mutual friend and today they have one daughter, who attends an independent school in DC.

When Rees started producing articles on school choice, she was noticed by The Heritage Foundation, where she was hired as a senior education analyst. She wrote policy papers and served as Heritage’s spokesman on education. The George W. Bush administration plucked her from Heritage to serve as Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy to Vice President Dick Cheney. Eventually she moved on to serve as Deputy Under Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the Department of Education. In this newly-created position, Rees oversaw the administration of 28 grants – ranging from charter schools and alternative routes to teacher certification to arts education and all federal K-12 earmarks.

As one of the education advisers to the Bush campaign, Rees also helped promote the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of George Bush’s education programs.  After it became law in 2002, her office was charged with promoting the choice-related provisions of the law. While serving at the Dept. of Education, Rees also helped enact and oversee the implementation of the first federally funded school voucher program, which became Washington, D.C.’s enormously successful Opportunity Scholarship Program. 

Rees argues that it’s the success of the charter movement that has attracted adverse attention. “It’s worth noting that charter schools are only 6% of the overall public-school system,” she says.  “And they are public schools.  But the reason the opposition is reacting is because we’ve been successful.  If we weren’t successful, I don’t think they would have been as vocal and as mobilized against us.”

After leaving the department, Rees worked in the private sector for a company that invested in early childhood education and online learning. In 2012 she became president and CEO of the National Alliance. “Forty-five states and DC now have charter school laws,” says Rees. “The National Alliance has been instrumental in passing laws in every state that has enacted one since the National Alliance’s birth in 2005. Because we now know more about the elements of a strong charter school law, we can avoid the mistakes made by the early adopters.”

The National Alliance also advocates for federal funding to launch new charter schools, Rees says, and “keeps a watchful eye on federal and state regulations with the goal of ensuring charter school autonomy.” She adds, “if you really want to expand the pool of options, charter schools are the best and only way to do so. I would even argue we have more diversity and innovation in our charter system in strong charter sectors like D.C. than we do in our private schools.”

Rees recognizes that parents don’t see school choice as a partisan issue. But because many charter school teachers aren’t legally required to join a union, the unions have fought aggressively against charter schools, even in the face of strong evidence of charter school success. 

Last year was particularly challenging for the charter school movement. Because of the 2018 elections, the movement faced a “fiercely hostile” climate in several states. California, which has been home to a strong charter school movement, and had a supporter in former Governor Jerry Brown, enacted several anti-charter measures once he left office. Illinois, Maine and New Mexico saw the same dynamic.  Rees says that opponents of charter schools are “more disciplined in terms of how they talk about these issues” in the 2020 election cycle. “Senator Warren opened the door to a new fight that we didn’t have on our hands before by threatening to end federal funding for any new charter schools,” Rees says. “Up until now, even Senator Bernie Sanders had said he would only end for-profit charters, which don’t really exist, but it’s a talking point that resonates.” 

Rees is ready for the battle. She knows firsthand how important it is to give parents and students educational options, especially when the system just isn’t working for them. She’s dedicated her professional life to fighting for other kids to have the choices she wishes she had had growing up in Virginia as a teenager fresh from Tehran.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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