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

School Choice

One of the top ranked high schools in the state just joined Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Herron High School is the latest addition to the IPS innovation network.

One of Indianapolis’ most sought after charter high schools just joined Indianapolis Public Schools — an unusual shift in a relationship that has long been competitive.

The IPS board voted to add Herron High School, a charter school on the northside, to the district portfolio of innovation schools at a meeting Thursday. Board member Elizabeth Gore was the only one to oppose the measure.

The move is the latest example of district collaboration with charter schools, which were seen in the past as rivals for students.

“Way back at the beginning, there was this huge animosity between IPS and charter schools,” said Herron board chair Joanna Taft, who has been involved with the school since it opened in 2006. “It’s really exciting to be able to see the charter schools and public schools start coming together.”

Herron and a second campus expected to open this fall, Riverside High School, are now under the IPS umbrella, but the schools still retain virtually all of their independence. The teachers are employed directly by the charter network and are not part of the IPS union. And unlike most innovation schools, neither campus is in an IPS building.

The deal offers the charter schools an influx of cash and extra control over which neighborhoods they serve. IPS will add well-regarded schools to the list of high schools on its books, and it will get credit for Herron’s test scores and other academic outcomes when the district is assessed by the state.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district wanted to add Herron to the innovation network so the classical liberal arts curriculum is available to more IPS students.

“The access to the classical model, which currently doesn’t exist in our district and … has a strong track record of success is obviously appealing to us,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure that we give our students access to this option.”

Both Herron and Riverside are located within the boundaries of IPS, but the schools also draw students from nearby township and suburban communities. About half the students who attend Herron live in IPS boundaries, said Taft.

The school, which regularly ranks among the top Indiana high school, has historically drawn high-achieving students from IPS. But it has faced criticism for having student demographics that don’t mirror the community. Herron enrolls about 35 percent students of color, compared to about 80 percent of IPS students. Additionally, about 32 percent of Herron students are poor enough to get subsidized meals, less than half the rate in IPS.

Because IPS educates so many poor students, it gets more money from the state. Next year, the district is expected to receive a base rate of nearly $7,000 per student from the state, while Herron will receive about $5,500. Under the agreement approved tonight, IPS will give Herron and Riverside $6,000 per student next year.

If the school’s demographics fit the projections from the state, the district would be giving the charter schools more than $475,000 on top of what they would normally get from the state.

Herron leaders are taking steps to increase the number of low-income students they serve, said Taft. In addition to joining the innovation network, Herron will participate in EnrollIndy, a planned unified enrollment system that will allow students to apply to Herron and other charter schools through the same website as IPS schools.

Ferebee also said joining the new enrollment system should help increase the number of low-income students at the schools.

“We have been very intentional with this agreement around ensuring that the student population with these schools mirror as much as possible our IPS population,” said Ferebee.

As innovation network schools, Herron and Riverside will also be able to give students from the surrounding neighborhoods first dibs on seats at the schools, which could increase the number of students who live within IPS boundaries. (With a few exceptions, charter schools are required to admit students by lottery.)

That was one of the most important reasons Herron wanted to join the innovation network, said Taft. Riverside staff have been working closely with neighborhood leaders around the new campus, and they wanted to be able to give local students priority in admission.

That’s an attractive prospect for board member Kelly Bentley, because the nearby students who will get an edge come from within the IPS boundaries.

“I think that Herron is an excellent academic program,” she said. “I’m really excited that our students will have a better chance of getting into that program.”

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.