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.

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.

stacking up

Tennessee inches up in national ranking of charter school laws

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

While Tennessee’s charter school law moved up slightly in a state-by-state analysis, it still ranks in the bottom half of similar laws evaluated by the nation’s leading charter advocacy organization.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Tennessee 29th out of 44 in its eighth annual report based on the group’s version of an ideal charter law. That’s up from 34th in the 2016 rankings.

The report released Wednesday is the first since the alliance updated its rubric to focus more on holding underperforming schools accountable.

Among the biggest issues is money. The report says Tennessee charter schools don’t get enough and neither do their authorizers to effectively oversee them. The group also calls out the Volunteer State on transparency and a lack of clarity over performance-based evaluations.

A charter bill that would overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter law is making its way through the General Assembly and would address some of those issues. The proposal would require charter schools to pay a fee to districts — a change that school leaders in Memphis and Nashville have long clamored for. The bill also would require districts to create clear academic performance rubrics to assess existing charters and clarify application and closure procedures.

Tennessee’s charter law has changed little since the state first opened its doors to charters in 2003. The sector has grown to 107 across the state, 71 of which are in Memphis and authorized either by Shelby County Schools or the state-run Achievement School District.

The leader of the Tennessee Charter School Center said the state’s original law was the product of “significant forethought” and that the state diligently continues to evaluate its effectiveness.

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
Maya Bugg

“We have made great strides, and current legislation in the works takes a strong next step towards addressing some of the policy challenges and opportunities across our state’s charter sector,” CEO Maya Bugg said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Adding clarity around processes and protocol, establishing consistent authorizer performance frameworks, and dedicating funds for increased access to facilities are key initiatives that will, if passed, further strengthen our policies, schools and districts,” she said.

Despite its mediocre ranking, Tennessee was one the leading states in four out of 21 categories used by the national alliance to evaluate state laws: no limit on number of charter schools, autonomous charter boards, automatic exemption from district collective bargaining agreements, and allowing for a variety of charter schools such as new and conversion.