CharterFolk Contributor Hanna Skandera – Shaping the Future: The Importance of Championing School Choice

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Hanna Skandera, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Daniels Fund.

Hanna Skandera, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Daniels Fund

I provide Hanna’s bio below.

Hanna Skandera joined the Daniels Fund as a Board member in 2019 and was subsequently selected as president and CEO in 2020 due to her proven track record of transformative leadership and impact in both public and private sector organizations.

Founded by cable pioneer Bill Daniels, the Daniels Fund transforms communities through grantmaking and college scholarships in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Its mission is rooted in Bill Daniels’ own life story, vision, and values and its work is centered on developing contributing citizens, enhancing quality of life, driving upward mobility, and promoting the free market. In 2021, the Daniels Fund celebrated giving away $1 billion since 2000.

Hanna is nationally recognized for her expertise in education, with significant improvements in student achievement during her leadership in New Mexico, where she served as secretary of education under Governor Susana Martinez. She also previously served as undersecretary for California Governor Schwarzenegger and as deputy commissioner for Florida Governor Jeb Bush and as deputy chief of staff and senior policy advisor for the U. S. Department of Education.  

Hanna has founded multiple education initiatives and leadership programs and has been a visiting professor of Education Policy and Impact at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She has been recognized by Pepperdine as both a Distinguished Alumni and an Outstanding Woman in Leadership.

Additionally, Hanna currently serves on the boards of Academic Partnerships, Daniels Fund, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, MGT, Newsela, and Philanthropy Roundtable. 

Hanna lives in Denver with her young son.

Shaping the Future: The Importance of Championing School Choice

School choice makes it possible for all students, regardless of economic background, to get an education that matches their needs and interests. This is a belief that we, at the Daniels Fund, hold dear and has fueled our recent efforts.

This isn’t a mere philosophical belief or a political mantra – it’s anything but that. At the Daniels Fund, we care passionately about school choice because it has the power to change lives and because we know it works. For example, charter schools generally outperform traditional public schools, especially in urban areas. A report from Stanford University found that students in urban charter schools received, on average, 40 additional learning days in math and 28 additional learning days in reading each year, compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools.

In New Mexico, between 2019 and 2022, reading, math, and science proficiency rose among all charter school students, but particularly among Native American and Hispanic demographics. Conversely, proficiency in those subjects for students in traditional district schools stagnated or decreased. That’s just one example of several states in which families and students have found academic success through school choice avenues.

And for all the success that’s been achieved, you’d expect that those who initially expressed skepticism towards this choice model would be persuaded. After all, this is about student success. Yet, school choice continues to face major headwinds. Look no further than Wisconsin, where one of the country’s oldest school choice programs is under legal attack by voices who contend that this proven model threatens the public school systems’ financial viability. A complaint challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school funding mechanisms for both charter and voucher programs was filed this October directly with the Wisconsin Supreme Court, seeking to bypass the lower courts due to its new ideological composition.

When adults lose sight of the north star – improving educational outcomes for students – it’s not just students who lose, America loses. We limit our country’s future potential because we’re not setting our youth up for optimal success.

As the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund — a charitable foundation that supports nonprofits dedicated to improving lives for the people of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – I’ve seen the impact that greater educational opportunities have on individual lives, and thus, families and communities at large.

In 2022, the Daniels Fund launched our Education “Big Bet,” setting a goal to add a combined 100,000 new choice seats in our four-state region by 2030. This big bet will increase the enrollment capacity of non-traditional schools in our region by nearly 30 percent.

We’re far from alone in our efforts — and we cannot do it alone. The Daniels Fund is committed to working alongside others to dramatically expand the number of choice seats across our region. We’re partnering with organizations to collaborate and support school expansions, school start-ups, and tuition assistance for families.

Each new seat will allow another student to get an education of their choice. This could be in a charter school, private school, or home-school co-op. Our investment will also allow families to choose micro-schools (small educational programs independent of school districts), learning pods (parent-organized groups that use hired instructors), or hybrid schools (which combine in-person and online learning).

Ultimately, we want to see a range of quality and innovative options that better meet the unique needs of students and families. We’ve observed that the most significant innovations in education today are happening within these alternative models.

Thankfully, every state has incredibly talented people who are passionate about improving educational outcomes for students, and many dedicate the entirety of their careers to that pursuit. For example, In 2020, 50CAN, a national educational advocacy organization that has secured 198 policy wins for students in 15 states, provided $335 million in direct aid to families in North Carolina and gave 10,000 more children access to multiple school options in the state.

Further, we know that parents want choice. From 2009 to 2019, enrollment in Colorado charter schools grew by more than 85%. Nationally, 1.4 million students left district public schools during the 2020-2021 school year, with 240,000 of them choosing charter schools. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After Denver began expanding school choice in 2009, graduation rates and achievement in English and math improved, according to a 2021 University of Colorado report.

School choice is an integral part of the solution to get American education back on track, and the Daniels Fund is increasing the range of options families have when making their choice. We are excited to work alongside so many capable and creative leaders and organizations whose commitment to this mission is unwavering, especially as political headwinds ebb and flow from state to state.

It’s time to double down on giving our students more options, so they can thrive in the learning environment that’s best for them — and it’s up to each of us, whether in philanthropy, government, advocacy, or school leadership, to champion school choice.