YES Prep

YES Prep charter school organization pulls out of Memphis at 11th hour

PHOTO: T. Cheshier
Students mill outside of Airways Middle School in Memphis after dismissal. The school has been scheduled to be co-operated next school year by Yes Prep Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, but Yes Prep charter leaders pulled out of the deal on Tuesday.

YES Prep Public Schools, a nationally known charter management organization based in Houston, Texas, is pulling out of Memphis, where it had been scheduled to begin taking over a struggling middle school this August, the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) announced Wednesday.

ASD officials received word Tuesday from YES Prep leaders about their decision to withdraw from launching a single-grade, phase-in school at Airways Middle School in south Memphis, beginning with a class of sixth-graders this fall. About 100 students were enrolled to participate.

“We are as surprised as everyone else by this sudden decision and disappointed YES Prep is backing out of its commitment to Memphis,” the ASD said in a news release. “The sixth-grade families of Airways Middle deserve better, and we’re committed to working with Shelby County Schools to ensure they have access to a high-quality option next year.”

Contacted by Chalkbeat, YES Prep leaders said Wednesday that the organization’s departure is due to inadequate community support in Memphis, an increasing political shift against the ASD, and structural challenges in the ASD model. But the nail in the coffin was when Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced earlier this year that the district no longer would participate in co-locations – a model that YES Prep is built on – in which a charter school takes over a school grade by grade while the existing school district operates the remaining grades. Hopson said the model was unsustainable.

“The city doesn’t like the idea of phasing into schools,” explained Bill Durbin, the superintendent of YES Prep’s Memphis initiative.

YES Prep is the fourth charter management organization to pull out of the takeover process in Memphis in the last year. KIPP, Freedom Prep and Green Dot withdrew from the school “matching process” after being authorized to become Memphis charter operators by the ASD.

“Not everyone is cut out for this work,” said the ASD, the state’s program for turning around the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. “We applaud YES Prep’s success with underserved communities in new, open-enrollment charter schools. But their decision today makes clear that YES Prep is not prepared to take on the urgent, more difficult work of turning around neighborhood schools in Memphis. And we wish that they would have come to this conclusion much sooner because this sudden decision puts Airways families in a difficult position for next year.”

Hopson expressed surprise and frustration over YES Prep’s departure. “I’m disappointed to go through a full process and to get the community stirred up and then, literally, at the 11-and-a-half hour, they change course,” he said.

The transition of Airways Middle to a charter organization angered many Memphians, prompting protests from parents, students and teachers who made “No Prep Zone” their rallying cry.

YES Prep is known for its work of getting hundreds of poor students into college. The organization has more than 9,000 students in Houston and another 6,000 youngsters on the waiting list.

“They’re one of the best charter management organizations in the country. … That’s why we wanted them to be here,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told Chalkbeat. “But they’ve done this in open-enrollment environments. This turnaround work is different. Not every charter organization is cut out to do this work.”

Barbic, among the founders of YES Prep before coming to Tennessee in 2011 to oversee the ASD, said he was “frankly angry” about the timing of YES Prep’s decision. “This story is about YES Prep having two years to plan a single-grade school, and making a decision two months before to pull out,” he said.

The ASD and Shelby County Schools now must decide what to do next with Airways Middle.

“We have 14 other operators doing great work, and we’ll get this done without [YES Prep]. And we’ll move forward,” Barbic said. “We’ve built a solid foundation in the last three years. This is a step back, but we’ll move forward.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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problems and solutions

6 problems the NAACP has with charter schools — and 5 of its ideas for how to reshape the sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Alice Huffman, chairwoman of the NAACP's National Task Force for Quality Education, speaks during a public hearing in January in Memphis.

After calling for a temporary ban on new charter schools last year, the NAACP has revealed what would it would take to get the civil rights group to support the privately run, publicly funded sector.

The lengthy report, released Wednesday, allows for the fact that some charters are doing well, but also relates an exhaustive list of concerns. About 5 percent of the country’s public school students attend charters, with an even larger share of black students, the focus of the NAACP report.

To address the concerns, the group offers a set of recommendations that could dramatically curb the sector if adopted. The recommendations are aligned with the country’s two major teachers unions, which have ramped up their criticism of charter schools amid U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s advocacy for them. Here’s what the NAACP is worried about, what we know about those issues, and what the group’s recommendations could mean for the charter school world.

NAACP’s problems with charters

1. Charters schools have mixed performance.

The NAACP argues that “research finds mixed outcomes for charters as a group—with some doing better and others were doing worse than district-run public schools.”

It’s generally true that charters perform comparably to district schools, as measured by standardized test scores. Charter schools do seem to perform especially well in urban areas, including in Boston, New Orleans, and New York City, as well as specific charter networks.

2. Charter schools close frequently, sometimes leaving students in a lurch.

The report points out that charters close relatively frequently, particularly schools serving many black students. “While school closures are sometimes seen as evidence that charter schools are in fact more accountable than public schools, charter school closures can seriously disrupt students’ learning, especially when closures occur during the school year,” the NAACP analysis states.

In one recent example, three Detroit charters closed to the surprise of families, leaving them scrambling to find a new school. However, there is evidence in Ohio and New Orleans that when charters are closed based on low performance, students benefit in terms of achievement.

3. Charters suspend black students at high rates and have been accused of pushing out certain students.

During the NAACP’s hearing across the country, the report says, “many participants testified about students with special needs, those perceived as poor test takers, or those who pose as a behavioral challenge are either not accepted, or once enrolled, disciplined or counseled out of many charter schools.” A report by the California ACLU found that one in five of the state’s charters had explicit and illegal discriminatory policies, though there is limited research on this issue more broadly. Some studies have not found evidence that charters push out students — at least not at greater rates than district schools.

The NAACP report also raised concerns about high rates of suspensions in charter schools, particularly of black students. One recent study found that charter schools were significantly more likely to be suspend black students than white students — but this is also the case in district schools. Civil rights advocates including the NAACP fear that this sort of exclusionary discipline make students more likely to drop out of school and create a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

4. Charter schools have been accused of lacking financial transparency and accountability.

“The extent to which charter schools are financially accountable and transparent often varies depending upon the strength of individual state charter laws,” the NAACP says, citing a number of examples.

Thorough reports in North Carolina, Michigan, and Ohio have raised concerns about financial impropriety.

A national analysis highlighted ways that charter schools could profit off of lax oversight requirements. “The multiple layers of private school operations and management, governing boards of private citizens, and in some cases, authorization by private entities, presents far greater opportunity to shield documents and avoid constitutional and statutory protections in the charter sector,” according to the report.

It is unclear, though, to what extent the charter sector differs in this respect compared to district schools and how widespread improprieties are.

5. Charter schools may increase segregation.

Most studies have found that charters are more racially and economically segregated than public schools generally,” the NAACP writes.

That’s true, though charter supporters note that this may be because charters are more likely to be located in cities that are themselves segregated. Careful analyses in a number of cities that examine how students transfer to and from schools over time do find evidence that charter schools exacerbate segregation, though the findings are not uniform.

6. For-profit and virtual charter schools are especially troubling in light of low performance.

The NAACP said that in the listening tour concerns about for-profit and virtual charter schools repeatedly came up, with the report describing “widespread findings of misconduct and poor student performance in for-profit charter schools.”

As the report points out, recent studies have shown that virtual charter schools produce dramatically worse results than public schools, and that for-profit charters perform modestly worse than non-profit charters. Some states like New York already bar for-profit charters, but they make up a large sector in other places, such as Michigan and Florida.

NAACP’s recommendations for charters

1. Eliminate for-profit charters

The NAACP recommends getting rid of for-profit charter schools — a position that is in line with many left-of-center charter school advocates. About one in five charter students attend a school run for profit, with even more doing so in certain states like Michigan and Florida.

2. Ensure that only school districts can authorize charters.

About 90 percent of authorizers right now are school districts, though it’s unclear what percentage of charter schools they authorize. Many states also allow state boards, universities, or independent commissions to approve and oversee charters. The NAACP wants to see those alternative authorizers eliminated in favor of a single overseer that can “monitor the supply of schools across the district … and ensure that high-quality schools open in neighborhoods that most need them.”

In response to the NAACP position, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers argued that school districts do not provide consistently strong oversight of charters. And it’s unclear what would happen in places, such as New York City, where relatively few charters are authorized by the district.

3. Mandate that only certified teachers be hired at charters.

“Charter schools should not be permitted to waive any licensing requirements for teacher and leaders working in their schools,” the NAACP report says, a position in step with the teachers unions. State policy on this issue varies. One authorizer in New York City has recently started a controversial move to allow charters to certify their own teachers. Research suggests that certification is only a modest predictor of teacher performance.

4. Tighten authorizing and accountability requirements.

The NAACP wants tougher oversight on charter schools’ disciplinary rules, recruitment and retention of students, financial practices, and academic performance. A number of these recommendations might be well received by progressive charter backers. For instance, on the issue of school discipline the NAACP highlights the approach of Washington, D.C.’s independent charter board, which many charter advocates have also praised. (Notably, though, this board would not be allowed under the NAACP’s recommendation that only districts can operate charters.) More conservative charter advocates — who already believe that charters are subject to too much regulation — are unlikely to support these ideas.

5. Improve the public school system as a whole.

A number of NAACP recommendations have nothing — directly — to do with charters. For instance, the report suggests “more equitable and adequate funding for schools serving students of color.” The group also backs the idea of community schools and pre-kindergarten.

Perhaps ironically after devoting an entire report to the topic, the NAACP suggests that charter schools may be a distraction: “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 well-researched educational investments.”

choice words

Critics of vouchers say they’re marred by racism and exacerbate segregation. Are they right?

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Debates over “school choice” — or “privatization” to critics — were already heated.

Then came a rhetorical hand grenade: a report by the Center For American Progress describing the “racist origins” of school vouchers and presented at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters. AFT president Randi Weingarten doubled down in a recent speech, arguing that voucher programs are the “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

Unsurprisingly, school choice backers have vehemently denied the charge.

“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants,” responded Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children, the school voucher group that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used to lead.

DeVos, for her part, has argued that school choice is meant to help poor families and can lead to more integrated schools.

So what do we know about the competing claims?

It’s true that the idea of public subsidies for private school tuition grew in the 1950s and 60s as a means to avoid integration efforts — and it’s also true that there has long been pockets of support for the idea among progressives.

There is little evidence that existing voucher programs have caused increases in racial segregation. But there is also reason to fear a larger initiative, one that’s not limited to low-income families, might.

And the debate is no doubt complicated by the embrace of vouchers by the Trump administration, one that advocates say is impeding civil rights on many fronts beyond education.

Here are five things you should know.

1. Advocates for school vouchers have had diverse motives over time, including support for segregation,  as well as racial justice.

Private school vouchers were used to avoid court-ordered integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, as The Center for American Progress report lays out.

“By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were set up in states across the South,” the report states. “Seven of those states — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — maintained tuition grant programs that offered vouchers to students in an effort to incentivize white students to leave desegregated public school districts.”

This history is echoed by a study in the Peabody Journal of Education. “From their inception, vouchers were not race-neutral instruments,” a trio of researchers write. Those early voucher programs predated the support of Milton Friedman, the economist who wrote an influential 1955 essay endorsing the idea.

Friedman’s embrace of vouchers was based on the view that expanding competition would improve outcomes for students and make schools more integrated, building upon the philosophical work from a century earlier of John Stuart Mill. The idea also received support from more progressive corners, including Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist who supported using vouchers to try to “close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged.”

In a 2005 article for the Georgetown Law Journal titled “The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First,” James Forman, Jr., now a Yale professor, acknowledges that vouchers were used to avoid integration but describes this history as “incomplete.”

He points to freedom schools established in 1964 in Mississippi by civil rights groups to educate black children who had been failed by the discriminatory public system as one example.

“By building separate schools and openly repudiating the establishment system, the freedom schools movement laid a foundation for later progressive school choice proposals,” Forman wrote.

Despite how vouchers were used in the 1950s and 1960s, the Peabody analysis points out that support for them grew among some progressives starting in the 1970s “as an antidote for overly bureaucratic big-city schools.”

The first voucher program in line with this vision was established in Milwaukee in 1990, with the support of a motley coalition of conservative Republicans and black Milwaukee Democrats. Among the latter group were Howard Fuller, who would later become Milwaukee’s school superintendent, and Polly Williams, a Democratic state senator.

The initiative was targeted at low-income families but would subsequently expand to include some middle-class students, a move that Fuller and Williams opposed. Williams would say that the program had been “hijacked.” The Milwaukee NAACP was against the city’s voucher initiative from its inception.

Private school choice programs have since grown throughout the country; many, though not all, target low- or moderate-income families, students attending public schools deemed low-performing, or students with disabilities. Leading pro-voucher groups support a dramatic expansion, including the creation of universal choice programs that all families can use.

By law, private schools that receive federal tax exemptions are now prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, though many of the original segregation academies still enroll few if any black students.

In sum, private school vouchers have been promoted by adherents with diverse motives, including some who viewed them as a way to avoid desegregation and others who saw school choice as a means to achieve racial justice.

Students at University Prep, a Denver elementary charter school, work on a computer-based assignment .
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

2. There is little evidence today that vouchers targeted at low-income families increase school segregation.

A key question now is whether voucher programs increase school segregation in practice. There is surprisingly little recent research on this topic, but the studies that do exist suggest that voucher programs for low-income students have no effect or they lead to small increases in school integration.

A recent study on Louisiana’s voucher program, which is largely used by low-income African-American students, found that black students tended to leave highly segregated public schools — but many also moved to a segregated private school. Still, more transfers had beneficial effects on integration than harmful ones.

“A third of all voucher transfers resulted in more integrated public and private schools, an additional 57 percent of transfers had mixed effects (positive effects in one sector, negative effects in another), and just 9 percent of transfers had negative effects,” as lead author Anna Egalite described the results.

A 2010 analysis of Milwaukee’s school voucher program found that it had a neutral effect on segregation. “Racially homogeneous schools make up a sizeable portion of schools in both [public and private] sectors,” the researchers wrote.

A number of older studies paint a positive picture of vouchers’ effect on integration, but this research cannot isolate cause and effect, as a report by EdChoice points out.

3. That doesn’t mean concerns about vouchers causing segregation are completely unfounded, though.

Large-scale voucher programs — which Betsy DeVos has promised and long advocated for — could have different results.

Research on charter schools in the U.S. and on vouchers in other countries offer more clues about how school choice programs sort students.

A report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, argues that vouchers threaten integration efforts, relying in part on evidence from Chile, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden. Widespread choice programs have been shown to exacerbate segregation in those countries across a number of dimensions. (There are many reasons, though, that education policy lessons from other countries might not translate cleanly to the U.S.)

Research on charter schools — a form of school choice that has expanded much more rapidly than vouchers — may be a helpful guide for the effects of a universal voucher program.

Studies on charter schools in Indianapolis, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas, among other places, show that charter schools can lead to greater racial stratification. There is very little evidence suggesting charters lead to more integrated schools, though a number of specific charter schools have emphasized diversity. National overviews have not found consistent evidence that charters cause segregation.

PHOTO: Dustin Chamber, courtesy of Fugee Academy.

4. The level of support for vouchers among black and Hispanic voters depends on how the question is worded.

Advocates for school choice often point to the support of black and Hispanic voters. An Education Next poll found that nearly 64 percent of African-Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics — compared to 50 percent of white respondents — would back a tax credit program to fund private school tuition.

But support for private school choice programs tends to drop substantially when the word “voucher” is introduced or the use of public dollars is emphasized.

According to another recent poll, just one-third of African-Americans said they would support “allowing students and parent to choose a private school to attend at public expense.” Ballot initiatives on school vouchers have also rarely been successful, though breakdowns of votes by race are not available.

5. The Trump administration’s stance on other issues makes vouchers seem more racist to some critics.

To some, the national messenger for vouchers is just as damning as the message.

Criticism of President Trump’s positions on civil rights — his ban on travel from several predominantly Muslims countries, his appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and his voter integrity commission based on false claims of widespread voter fraud — are well documented.

“Racism is unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered,” wrote Catherine Brown of the Center for American Progress.

But to supporters of vouchers, emphasizing the politics and not the policy amounts to opposing an idea that could help low-income kids.

“I absolutely worry about the Trump administration embrace of this issue because it’s created more of a political wedge,” Chavous of the American Federation for Children told Chalkbeat in May. “So are we going to wait four years to find something for these parents whose kids are struggling? Are we going to wait eight years? His embrace of the issue is a challenge politically, but we still have to do something for these kids who are underserved.”

Whether vouchers actually accomplish that goal remains its own hotly contested question.