drilling down

Five takeaways from the NAACP’s charter school hearing in Memphis

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

Declaring their desire to understand the nuances of charter schools in cities like Memphis, members of a national NAACP task force dug in this week to the nitty-gritty of the education reform tool and how it’s impacting everything from funding to equity.

The group’s National Task Force for Quality Education heard more than four hours of presentations Tuesday night from Mid-South education leaders invited to share their insights in the wake of last fall’s call from the civil rights group for a moratorium on charter school growth.

The NAACP has come under fire for its position, with some other civil rights organizations pointing out that charter schools offer options and innovations aimed at educating low-income minority students. The task force was created to drill down on issues such as school accountability, transparency and discipline before sending its report to the board in May.

About 200 people attended the hearing that ended with a public comment period in which about a dozen teachers and parents from Memphis and Chicago spoke.

Here are five themes that dominated the discussion:

Charter schools are not a silver bullet in solving inequities in education.

“The original charter schools were set up to help all of us learn,” said Carol Johnson, who served as superintendent of the former Memphis City Schools. “Too often, they have operated as a singular solution, a stand-alone effort, the one magic bullet that will close all achievement gaps.”

While there’s much division about charter schools, there was consensus that more collaboration is needed among traditional and charter schools to figure how best to address decades of inequities in educating America’s black children.

The NAACP’s call for a charter moratorium does not excuse low-performing traditional schools.

Task force members emphasized that traditional schools need to step up their game, too.

“If we stopped all charter schools today, we’d still have a huge problem,” said Scot Esdaile, a task force member from Connecticut. “There are schools in our communities that have not been performing for a long time. We have to come up with a comprehensive plan to put an end to those schools in our communities also.”

State funding for education is insufficient, no matter what kind of public school it is.

One of the elephants in the room was not actually in the room: state government.

Many presenters jabbed at state leaders for funding that they said is inadequate to oversee Tennessee’s growing charter sector.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
About 200 people attended this week’s hearing in Memphis.

But even before the state legislature passed a 2002 law opening the door to charter schools, district leaders complained that Tennessee wasn’t allocating enough money for traditional schools — a charge that has sparked a new round of funding lawsuits in the last two years.

By the same token, charter leaders have lamented the lack of local or state funding for facilities, even though they are part of the public school system, too.

A charter advisory committee in Memphis has made strides in coming up with potential solutions to issues related to charter accountability, including a voluntary fee that charters would pay the district to provide better oversight.

But the money drained from students leaving traditional schools for charters has yet to be addressed, said Teresa Jones, a member of the Shelby County Schools Board of Education.

“The funding model is antiquated and inadequate. It actually pits charters against the local school district,” she said. “I’m not saying charters have no place. … I think the state did not really address that at all and is continuing to not address the funding impact on the local school district.”

The conversation is becoming increasingly important as the United States prepares for a new administration.

President-elect Donald Trump supports school choice programs such as charter schools and tuition vouchers that allow families to spend taxpayer money to send their children to private schools. He’s nominated Michigan’s Betsy DeVos, a proponent of both, to be his secretary of education.

With growing uncertainty on how educational systems will change under a Trump administration, task force members said facts must be established on the impact of charter schools on the education of minority students.

Though Trump hasn’t laid out a detailed plan, his selection of DeVos suggests he’ll aggressively seek to reshape the nation’s public education system.

The NAACP is open to learning about the nuances of charter schools across the nation.

When the NAACP board passed its resolution resolution calling for a pause in charter growth, many charter leaders feared the civil rights organization would generalize charter schools at the expense of those that are working well.

But participants walked away from Tuesday’s hearing saying they felt better as task force members softened their language while learning about the education landscape in Memphis and about Tennessee’s charter law. The state only allows nonprofit operators that are authorized by local school districts or the state.

“When I measure what they’ve done in Tennessee and what the legislation has been, what the laws and standards have been in Tennessee, it’s better than a lot of places, but it still needs a lot of work,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the NAACP’s Tennessee State Conference.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Achievement Schools Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks to the task force.

Task force members learned about Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which relies mostly on charter networks for its school turnaround work. They praised the state-run district for addressing Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools and confining enrollment mostly to neighborhood zones, even as the ASD has begun to lose charter networks and plans to close at least one school.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson was asked whether charter schools contribute to segregation in Memphis, where decades of white flight was underscored by the 2014 exit of six white suburban municipalities from the urban district serving mostly poor black students.

“I think there are systemic inequities in public education. Period,” Anderson said. “The systemic inequities that exist in housing, in the job market and in zoning of schools … is creating the kinds of failure that we see in predominantly black neighborhoods. We go where the need is. I don’t think it’s discriminatory to go where this is needed.”

The hearing was the task force’s second of seven planned across the nation. Other hearings are scheduled for Detroit, New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Orlando.

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.