Democracy Dies in Darkness

Answer Sheet | Analysis

NAACP sticks by its call for charter school moratorium, says they are 'not a substitute' for traditional public schools

July 26, 2017 at 8:01 AM

Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s chief legal counsel in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case who later became the first black Supreme Court justice, is pictured here in 1958 at Supreme Court after filing appeal in the integration case of Little Rock’s Central High School. Around him are students from Little Rock. (AP)

(Update: Adding copy of report)

Last fall, the NAACP, the country's oldest civil rights organization, called for a moratorium on expanding public charter schools until the charter sector, troubled in a number of states, is reformed and steps are taken to ensure that traditional public school districts are not financially harmed by the spread of charters. It was a controversial position for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was blasted by charter school supporters, including other civil rights groups, but praised by public education advocates.

The NAACP then created a 12-member task force to travel to seven cities to take testimony about charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, as well as about the quality of education for children of color in inner-city schools. The task force report, released Wednesday (see below), sticks by the organization's recommendation while also talks about problems in traditional inner-city public schools.

In the report, which includes recommendations for moving ahead, the panel's 12 members stuck by the recommendation, setting out the issue early in the report:

"Charter schools were created with more flexibility because they were expected to innovate and infuse new ideas and creativity into the traditional public school system. However, this aspect of the promise never materialized. Many traditional inner city public schools are failing the children who attend them, thus causing parents with limited resources to search for a funded, quality educational alternative for their children. …

With the expansion of charter schools and their concentration in low-income communities, concerns have been raised within the African American community about the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color."

Ultimately, the task force said, "while high quality, accountable and accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity, by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children."

Charter schools have been around for 25 years, and there are now thousands in most states and the District of Columbia serving around 6 percent of the nation's schoolchildren. Charter supporters  — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos among them — say they provide a vital choice to parents whose children are in troubled traditional public schools.  But critics see charters as part of the movement to privatize public education, and many traditional public school systems say they lose too many public education dollars to charters.

Here is a piece with more about the NAACP task force report and recommendations for moving forward to bring reform to charter schools and traditional public schools enrolling children of color in inner cities. It was written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit education advocacy group. She has been chronicling problems with school reform efforts for years on this blog, most recently with a series about problems in the charter sectors in a number of states. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013 the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year.

Related: [Problems with charter schools that you won’t hear Betsy DeVos talk about]

By Carol Burris

The NAACP has, once again, slapped down the claim that the promotion of school choice and charter schools is "the civil rights issue of our time." At its 2017 national convention this week in Baltimore, the preeminent civil rights organization not only stood by last year's call for a moratorium on new charter schools, it also insisted on reform of charters that already exist.

Just as the organization courageously sponsored the lawsuit filed by Thurgood Marshall that resulted in the landmark 1954 school integration decision, Brown v. Board of Education, so too is it willing to critique the charter school establishment, which has fought reform tooth and nail.

Following the firestorm that resulted from the NAACP 2016 resolution, the group's Board of Directors created a 12-member "Task Force on Charter Schools" that traveled the country holding hearings. That task force listened to more than 50 hours of public testimony in seven cities: New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and New York. Members heard testimony from both charter proponents and opponents. Community leaders, policy experts, parents and students spoke.

The task force extended the discussion to the broader problems of public education in large American cities. No rational person would argue that the education of black and brown children in urban America is equitable, adequate and fair. But given the evidence of more than two decades, it is also clear that charters and choice are not a substitute for traditional public schools, the task force's newly released report says, and many charters are desperately in need of reform.

"Charter schools were created with more flexibility because they were expected to innovate and infuse new ideas and creativity into the traditional public school system. However, this aspect of the promise never materialized," says the report, entitled "Quality Education for All: One School at a Time."

The report is well worth the read by those who both support and oppose charter schools.  It blends the testimony of charter operators and teachers, parents, public school educators, and researchers to create a strong narrative to support its recommendations and provides a path forward.

It cites research that demonstrates that when it comes to achievement, charters overall provide no real advantage.

It is a concern that charter schools have had a larger influence on the national conversation about how to improve education in communities of color than these other [class size and pre-K] well-researched educational investments that have been shown to have much larger effects on achievement.

Weak overall academic results in urban schools are the result of a lack of adequate funding, according to the report. The task force heard consistent testimony that a lack of sufficient resources for urban schools is not only the root cause of student struggles, but a rationale to pit charters and traditional public schools against each other, creating a competition that does not serve students well.

Moving to a full charter system as a solution, however, was rejected by Bill Quigley, professor at Loyola Law School and a civil rights lawyer who commented on what has taken place in New Orleans, a city of virtually all charter schools:

But we should look at the system as the NAACP has always done, from the point of the most vulnerable, from the point of the most disadvantaged, from the point of the people with the most need, and from that perspective, unfortunately the charter school system in New Orleans does not receive a passing grade.

Charter school supporters' testimony for the most part expressed their support for public education. They argued that their schools were committed to providing quality education. Their testimony rejected the notion that charters "cherry pick" students, though the report documents testimony of others that says otherwise.

Related: [Will the thing that charter schools love so much be their undoing?]

"Quality Education for All: One School at a Time" provides parent testimonials that describe how special-needs students, those with low test scores and those with behavioral challenges are being rejected, excessively disciplined or pushed out by charter schools.

A New York City father, Charles Spowler, gave testimony regarding his son's experience in a Success Academy school: "My son, with great fanfare, got accepted into Harlem Success Academy. Within his first day of school, I was told that he was unfocused and he needed to be disciplined. I was like, 'Okay. They have high standards. This is good.'"

But, he said, his son was identified, with some other children in his class, as "problematic" and those students all left the school within a few weeks, including his son. He testified: "I could not understand how a school that claimed to be public could come to me and say, 'Listen. Something is wrong with your son. You got to go.'"

Testimony cited in the report also criticized the lack of stability in many charter schools, as well as the lack of full financial transparency.  Gary Heisman of Hamden Public Schools shared his belief that "no organization should get public money if they can't show how every penny is spent." He described how charter operators have fought "tooth and nail" in courts not to disclose information. A California charter school teacher testified how the lack of financial transparency hurt her school when the principal was spending "thousands on delicious wine, scrumptious steaks, and luxurious hotel rooms."

Testimony from both charter proponents and opponents raised strong concerns regarding the for-profit charter sector — both the 13 percent of charters that are for-profit schools, as well as the for-profit management companies that are behind many nonprofit charters. Weak charter authorizing, multiple authorizers and a lack of strong student and taxpayer protections were also repeated concerns.

In conclusion, the report acknowledges that while some charters serve students well, "there are also a wide range of problems with the operation of charters across the country that require attention." The report also concludes "even the best charters" cannot be a substitute for an equitable, well-funded public school system.

Following strong recommendations to adequately fund, improve and nurture our public schools, the report issued three specific and far-reaching recommendations for charter school reform.

  1. Develop and enforce robust charter school accountability measures. 

The task force recommended that this be accomplished by the following procedures:

  1. Require fiscal transparency and equity regarding the sources of revenues and how those resources are allocated.

The task force recommended that charters be held to the same fiscal transparency standards as traditional public schools and that states address depletion of public school resources caused by the presence of charter schools.

  1. Eliminate for-profit charter schools.

The task force recommends not only the elimination of for-profit charters, it also recommends the elimination of all of the for-profit management companies that run many nonprofit charters thereby draining taxpayer dollars from the classroom.

Will the charter school establishment take the NAACP's recommendations to heart and begin to advocate for internal reform? Only time will tell. One thing, however, is certain. When the NAACP expresses high criticism of charters, it is impossible to argue that school choice "is the civil rights issue of our time."

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Here's the full report:

Task_ForceReport_final2[1] by Valerie Strauss on Scribd


Valerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.

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