Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) listens to Hillary Clinton at the NAACP annual convention in Cincinnati on July 18. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The NAACP has long expressed concern about charter schools, but now its members are taking a tougher stance. At their recent annual national convention late last month, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People approved a resolution that included language calling for a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charters.

For years, resolutions at annual national conventions of the historic organization have raised issues about charters, but the 2016 resolution uses stark language. The new resolution (see text below) notes that “charter schools with privately appointed boards do not represent the public but make decisions about how public funds are spent,” and it cites a number of problems with some charters, including punitive disciplinary policies, fiscal mismanagement and conflicts of interest.

The resolution won’t be official NAACP policy until the organization’s national board meets soon and decides whether to approve it — but the message from the majority of its members are clear. It says in part:

* “Charter schools have contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.”

* “Weak oversight of charter schools puts students and communities at risk of harm, public funds at risk of being wasted, and further erodes local control of public education.”

* ” [R]esearchers have warned that charter school expansions in low-income communities mirror predatory lending practices that led to the sub-prime mortgage disaster, putting schools and communities impacted by these practices at great risk of loss and harm…”

Charter advocates criticized the NAACP vote, with charter school founder and operator Steve Perry telling NewsOne Now that the NAACP convention is out of touch with its members in the states. Education Secretary John King told participants at the annual National Association of Black Journalists–National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Washington that there shouldn’t be “artificial barriers” to the growth of quality charters, which he called “drivers of opportunity for kids,” according to TakePart.com.

Here’s a post about the resolution and why it matters in the school reform debate. It was written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, explains why putting the word “public” in front of “charter school” — which are funded with tax dollars — is “an affront” to people for whom public education is a mission. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year in 2013. She has been chronicling botched school reform efforts in her state for years.

 

By Carol Burris

The democratic governance of our public schools is an American tradition worth saving. Although results are not always perfect, school board elections represent democracy in its most responsive and purest form. Sadly, it has become no more than a memory in many communities — especially in urban neighborhoods of color where citizens are already disenfranchised in so many ways.

In those communities, privately managed charters have accelerated a decline that began with mayoral control of public schools. The good news is that there is a growing awareness and resistance to privately managed schools. This is evidenced by the remarkable stand taken by the NAACP at its recent annual convention in Cincinnati, during which members passed a resolution that called for a moratorium on these charter schools.

Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig is the education chair of the California and Hawaii NAACP. He said he supported the resolution put forth by the San Jose delegation because he believes that when it comes to charters, it is “time to pump the brakes and reevaluate.” At a recent debate on the resolution at the National Urban League convention, Vasquez Heilig had the following to say in defense:

“What the education reformers have put on the table is top-down, private control and privatization of schools. Choice does not have to be that way; choice can be about community-based solutions.”

Worries about charters were reflected in past resolutions of the NAACP as well. The new 2016 resolutions go further, calling for a moratorium on the growth of charter schools, along with review of their disciplinary practices. The NAACP also called for transparency, enforcement of laws to prevent fraud, waste and corruption, and an end to charter school practices that exploit communities and neighborhoods.

Here is some of the specific language in the 2016 resolution calling for a moratorium:

Be it further resolved, that the NAACP hereby supports a moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools.

Why would the delegates to the NAACP, an organization that has supported parts of the corporate school reform agenda, reject the growth of charter schools?

Jitu Brown is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), an alliance of community, student and parent organizations in 21 cities, which fight for community-driven alternatives to the privatization of and dismantling of public schools. Brown explained his member groups’ skepticism of charters this way:

 “We applaud the one out of five charter schools that are truly centers of innovation, fulfilling their original intent. The charter school movement however, tries to spin mediocre interventions as school improvement while snatching away a family’s choice of a high quality neighborhood school within walking distance of their homes.  These are ‘hustlers’ who use civil rights language to repeatedly violate the civil rights of Black and Brown communities.”

 The message is clear: privately managed charter schools may call themselves public, but they often exclude the public in poor communities when it comes to having a say in school governance.

Let’s take a look, for example, at the Board of Success Charter Schools in New York City to see what “private management” looks like. New York City’s Success Academy has 17 non-staff directors. They are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. Only one of the 17 board members is black — Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform and a former candidate for mayor of Newark.

The rest of the board reads more like a “who’s who” of the New York Times society page than the representatives of the economically disadvantaged families of New York City. Board President Daniel Loeb, founder of Four Point Capital, is a multi-billionaire. Six other board members are founders or directors of hedge funds or private investment firms. Campbell Brown, whose education reform website consistently comes to the defense of Success, also sits on the board.

The board of Success is not an anomaly. You can find the board of KIPP here. It includes Netflix billionaire Reed Hastings; Carrie Walton Penner, an heir to the Walmart fortune; and Philippe Dauman, president and chief executive officer of Viacom.

So why does it matter who sits on a board?

Elected boards that represent a community give parents voice. I served on a board of education for 10 years. In order to be reelected by residents, I had to be sensitive to the needs of parents and taxpayers, always balancing those needs with sound governance of the schools. Later, as a high school principal in a neighboring district, I was always cognizant that I worked for an elected board. If I suspended a student, for example, I needed to make sure that I did my due diligence and followed policy, knowing that the suspension could be appealed and the overturned by the board.

Public school principals know that the decisions they make are transparent to the public and that missteps or mistakes are likely to reach the ear of a member of the board. It is highly unlikely that a Success parent could pick up a phone and get the board chairman or even his assistant, if a problem at Success occurred.

It is not by chance that so many charter chain boards are filled with the elite. The disdain for democratic governance by charter advocates is common. In the words of KIPP Board member, Hastings: “The school board model works reasonably well in suburban districts.” In cities, where it takes thousands of dollars to run, school board seats attract the politically ambitious. “They use the school board as a stepping-stone to run for higher office.”

The prejudice inherent in that statement is astounding. To paraphrase, suburban communities can self-govern; but urban residents should not because they would have self-serving motives, unlike altruistic billionaires, who should be on charter boards.

That is the reason that the NAACP passed the resolution calling for a moratorium. The 2,200 members who passed that resolution understand that policies around suspension, excessive discipline, cherry-picking students[1] and continual test-prep, along with the lack of regulations that result in theft and corruption, will not change until the community participates in governance and transparency prevails.

In 2014, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform painted a grim picture of just how undemocratic charter school governance is in the state of Massachusetts. But they also made serious recommendations on how charter school governance could be reformed. Their findings can be generalized to states across the nation, and so are their solutions, which follow:

  • Require that at least 50 percent of the members of each charter school governing board be representatives from among parents at the school (elected by parents) and, in the case of high schools, students (elected by students);
  • Require that non-parent/student members of the governing board reside in the school district in which the school(s) operates;
  • Instruct each charter school to list board members with affiliations on the school’s website;
  • Require governing boards of charter schools to hold all meetings in the district in which the school or schools operate, and at times that are convenient to parents;
  • Require all meeting to be open to the public and publicized in advance according to the rules for the traditional public school governing body, and require minutes from board meetings to be available online.

The above recommendations sound awfully reasonable to me.

The passage of the NAACP resolution was greeted with horror by Democrats for Education Reform; Steve Perry, who has partnered with Rapper Puff Daddy to open a charter, and U.S. Secretary of Education John King, who was a managing director of the Uncommon Charter Chain.

I suggest they all take a deep breath and read the resolutions again. The NAACP does not want charter schools shut down. It wants a pause on new, privately managed charters. They want students treated with dignity. They want transparency and waste and fraud to stop. And they want any school that calls itself “public” to act as if the public matters.

They should then take a look at the five recommendations from Annenberg. Why would anyone who cares about the dignity of communities — be they rich or poor — object?

[1] The ACLU recently released a report in California alleging that 1 in 5 charters in the state violate state and federal by engaging in illegal admissions practices.

Here’s the NAACP resolution:

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(Correcting footnote. ACLU released a report rather than put information in a lawsuit.)