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

Politics & Policy

Indiana ranked no. 1 for charter-friendly environment by national advocacy group

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A national group that pushes for charter schools to operate freely says Indiana is doing almost everything right.

But the group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, dinged Indy’s lack of regulation for online charter schools in its newest report ranking states on charter school regulation. A recent Chalkbeat series documented the persistently low test scores at the schools — which educate more than 11,442 students.

The nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools pushes for greater funding and flexibility for charter schools across the nation.

Its report highlights Indiana because the state does not have cap on the number of charter schools that can open. Multiple organizations also have the authority to authorize schools (including private universities and state organizations). And Indiana charter schools have significant autonomy from the strictures of district unions and many of the state regulations that cover traditional districts. But they can be closed for persistently low test scores.

Indiana has a large ecosystem of charter schools that serve more than 43,000 students — exceeding any district in the state. It’s one piece of a statewide embrace of school choice that features many of the programs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump support — including one of the largest voucher programs in the nation, open enrollment across district boundaries, and district-run choice programs.

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.