Front and center

NAACP to put Memphis in spotlight in national debate over charter schools

PHOTO: The Enquirer/Meg Vogel
About 140 parents and grandparents from Memphis Lift disrupt the national NAACP board meeting last October in Cincinnati to rally for school choice.

In the national debate about oversight and funding of charter schools, Memphis is at the crossroads of efforts to use charters to move students from bad public schools to classrooms with higher-quality seats.

Since Tennessee began authorizing charters in 2003 to bring innovation to its low-performing schools, the sector in Memphis has mushroomed to nearly 75 schools overseen by either the local system or state-run district. Though the performance of charters has been spotty thus far, most agree that their presence has been a catalyst for improving the city’s traditional schools.

At the same time, oversight of the growing sector has been inadequate, prompting Shelby County Schools to seek state funding and national help to develop a stricter accountability system for its charter schools. The state’s charter-reliant turnaround district also has faced scrutiny — but few consequences — for its mostly lackluster performance. And local education leaders have increasingly blamed charter schools for siphoning off both students and funding from a local district that already is struggling with enrollment and strapped for cash.

Memphis takes the national spotlight on Tuesday when the NAACP holds its second of seven public hearings across the nation on the impact of charter schools on public education. The hearings are sponsored by the National Task Force for Quality Education, which the NAACP created after the civil rights group in October approved a moratorium on charter expansion to study issues related to the sector’s transparency, accountability, funding and discipline practices. Subsequent hearings are planned for Detroit, New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Orlando.

“In our communities in Memphis and around the nation, public education has always been the fountain of opportunity and we’ve got to ensure that in our attempts to improve it, we don’t unintentionally let it run dry,” said NAACP CEO and President Cornell William Brooks. “Ensuring that underfunded districts are not disparately impacted by the growth of charters or privatization has always been a priority for the NAACP.”

Debate over the moratorium has underscored the divide among civil rights groups over the best direction for improving school options for poor and minority students.

The issue gained even more scrutiny when President-elect Donald Trump picked Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos for U.S. education secretary. DeVos, who will begin confirmation hearings this week, is a passionate advocate for school-choice mechanisms such as charter schools and tuition vouchers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
NAACP Tennessee State Conference President Gloria Sweet-Love presents the state’s response in October to the national NAACP board’s call.

In addition to being a national battleground city for school improvement efforts, Memphis is home to one of the nation’s largest NAACP chapters. Three Memphians sit on the organization’s national board, and Gloria-Sweet-Love, who presides over the Tennessee State Conference, is on the 11-member national task force. A few weeks after the national board’s vote, she called for action nationwide to keep charter schools in check but also defended Tennessee’s charter sector.

Sweet-Love said Monday that the NAACP wants to use the panel’s hearings to shine a light on district funding and charter school accountability.

“We want to make sure schools are equitably funded and the kids that need the most have the resources there for them,” she told Chalkbeat. “We should not be starting a new charter school if there’s not enough funding.”

Sweet-Love says charter schools can bring innovation to traditional schools but that accountability measures must keep pace with the sector’s rapid growth. “Charter schools have sprung up everywhere so I think it’s important we make sure they all show transparency and accountability,” she said.

Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center, says the state’s charter school laws are stronger than most states on accountability and oversight. She hopes the NAACP’s task force will recognize the nuance.

“It’s not one monolithic culture of charter schools nationwide,” said Bugg, who plans to participate in Tuesday’s hearing. “Memphis is on the cusp of a education renaissance. (The hearing) is an opportunity for us to think about where are we? Where are we going? And what schools have helped us get there? Charter schools have been a nice piece of that puzzle to strengthen education.”

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated. Tennessee law allows only nonprofit ones that are authorized by local districts or the state.

“We are all public schools all working toward public good,” Bugg said. “I think it would be a misstep for us to put an end to or limit schools and systems that are working for our students. And some of our charter schools are doing that. Tennessee is a model.”

The task force’s first hearing elicited four hours of passionate debate last month in New Haven, Conn., where charter advocates and detractors discussed the merits of charter schools for minority students in particular, whether or not charter schools take away resources from traditional school districts, and if a majority of black and Hispanic parents even want them.

The task force plans to present a preliminary report to the national NAACP in May and present full recommendations at its July meeting in Baltimore.

Invitees to the Memphis hearing include:

  • Malika Anderson, superintendent of the Achievement School District
  • Teresa Jones, school board member, Shelby County Schools
  • Carol Johnson, former superintendent of Memphis City Schools and former director of schools in Boston and St. Paul, Minn.
  • Earl Watkins, chairman of Mississippi State’s NAACP education committee
  • Merwyn L. Scott, director of minority community organizing and partnership, National Education Association NEA
  • Maya Bugg, CEO, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Patrick Washington, director, Promise Academy
  • David Pickler, co-founder, American Public Education

Voucher roundup

Gearing up for Tennessee’s voucher fight? Here are eight stories to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A group of Jubilee School students work on a craft during a summer reading program at La Salle School, one of the Memphis schools expected to accept tuition vouchers if the state legislature approves a program.

When the General Assembly kicks off in earnest next week, one education issue is sure to come up: vouchers.

This will mark Tennessee’s seventh year of legislative debate over vouchers, which are taxpayer-backed scholarships that parents could use to send their kids to private school. In Tennessee, recent legislative proposals would have applied only to students attending the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Whether you’ve followed the debate in years past, or are just tuning in, here’s our list of stories to get informed for this year’s showdown:

Once considered a sure thing, vouchers fizzle in Tennessee legislature.

Let’s pick up where the legislature left off last year — with Rep. Bill Dunn pulling the bill right before it reached the House floor for the first time. The Knoxville Republican, who has championed voucher legislation for years, said he was two votes short.

Chalkbeat explains what vouchers might mean for Tennessee.

Here’s what voucher legislation has looked like in the past — and its potential to shake up public education.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn looks straight ahead Thursday after tabling his voucher bill, likely for the year, in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Tennessee shows why vouchers can be a hard sell, even in red states.

Vouchers are in the national spotlight thanks to President Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos. Vouchers are typically considered a cause of the Republican Party, which holds a supermajority in Tennessee. The fact that vouchers have been kept at bay in the state shows how the debate goes beyond partisan politics.

Trump’s nominee for education chief already has influenced Tennessee’s voucher debate.

From the helm of education advocacy groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers, including several in Tennessee.

Want to keep school vouchers out of Tennessee? You’re too late.

The state actually already has one voucher law in place. This month, eight private schools began accepting public money to educate special education students, giving the State Department of Education its first taste of overseeing a voucher program.

Vouchers could transform Memphis and one network of schools.

Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools are lobbying for vouchers. They say the program would boost enrollment in their network of elementary and middle schools established in 1999 by the Dioceses of Memphis to serve low-income students.

But most Memphis private schools are on the fence about accepting vouchers.

While Memphis would be most impacted by a voucher law, leaders of many of the city’s private schools aren’t necessarily interested in participating in the program.

Here’s the lowdown on how vouchers have played out in other states.

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, although the original proposal, like Dunn’s bill in Tennessee, focused primarily on low-income students. Now, Indiana’s program serves middle-class students as well, from families that likely would have opted for private school with or without public money. Student achievement in Indiana has largely been unaffected by vouchers. One study found that students who switched to private schools through the program might actually be doing worse in math.

perks of being a charter school

Cuomo’s budget proposal includes perks for New York City charter schools, including lifting the city’s cap

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Thousands of parents and students attended a charter school rally hosted by Families for Excellent Schools in September

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his executive budget proposal last week, New York’s charter school advocates were quick to offer support.

The pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY said the plan reaffirms Cuomo’s belief in the “critical role” of charter schools. New York City’s Charter Center said it sets the stage for “continued growth.”

Why are they excited? The budget proposal includes a few significant perks for charter schools — particularly those in New York City, where more schools would be allowed to open in the coming years.

Here is a breakdown of the changes:

New York City’s charter-school cap eliminated

State law currently allows for just 30 more charter schools to open in New York City — but that number may soon skyrocket.

New York state currently has a statewide charter school cap and a cap specific to New York City. Under Cuomo’s proposal, New York City’s charter cap would be eliminated, leaving just one overall cap on charter schools across the state.

That’s significant because New York City only had those 30 charter slots remaining by November 2016, according to the Charter Center, though there were 126 charters left to issue throughout the state.

The legislature last adjusted the cap in 2015, when it gave the city another 50 slots.

More help paying for private space

As New York City’s charter schools expanded rapidly under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many were given space in the city’s public school buildings. Some, though, were told they would have to find and pay for space themselves.

Charter advocates won a big victory in 2014 when the state passed a law requiring New York City to help charter schools pay for private space. Under Cuomo’s new proposal, those schools would get a little more help.

Under the 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that don’t get public space are entitled to either 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate or their total rent, whichever is less. Cuomo’s proposal would increase that to 30 percent of per-pupil tuition rate or the school’s “total facility rental cost.”

The problem for charter schools is that moving into a private space often costs more than the the rent or the 20 percent figure, said David Umansky, the CEO of Civic Builders, an organization that helps charter schools find and build spaces. When that happens, schools face tough budgetary choices, he said.

“It’s not about building the Taj Mahal. It’s about just finding a space to teach kids,” Umansky said. “It’s a real stress on schools.”

Under the law, the city is on the hook for up to $40 million in rent. Once it hits that figure — which the Charter Center estimates will happen sometime this year — the costs will be split with the state.

More public space all at once

Another change requires charter schools to be given enough room for a chunk of grades in the space they are offered. For instance, the city could not give a new charter school one year of co-located space for just a first grade when the charter school has approved plans to expand up to fourth grade.