At rally, Memphis activists push vouchers as civil rights issue

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
A choir performs during a rally for school vouchers Tuesday at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.

Nicole Gates was at her wit’s end with her nine-year-old twin daughters’ public education. Their reading skills had suffered, their classes were overcrowded and teachers were apathetic, she said. So the single mother scrounged up $4,500 and this year they’re attending St. John’s, a Memphis-based private school.

On Tuesday night, she joined about 350 parents, activists and political leaders at Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to advocate for legislation that stands to give Gates and parents like her government-backed scholarships known as vouchers to attend private schools. They say they’ve already paid that money, around $9,000, in sales and property taxes, and they should get it back in the form of a voucher to spend on schooling that best suits their children.

Tuesday’s rally featured social justice poetry, rousing gospel music, a call to the altar and fiery speeches from former Memphis City Schools board member Pastor Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. and former Memphis schools superintendent and mayor Mayor Willie Herenton. Both Whalum and Herenton were credited Tuesday with building strong schools using some of the earliest versions of school choice — magnets and intra-district transfers — only to be later “crucified” by opponents.

“Public schools for too long had a monopoly and children of lower income status didn’t have the option of going to a private school,” Herenton said to shouts of amen from the audience. “Every parent deserves the right and the opportunity to have choices in the educational market place. I’m an advocate of public schools, a strong advocate, but I’m a stronger advocate for options and choices for parents.”

Voucher activists are largely focusing their organizing efforts in Memphis this year, where any proposed voucher bill in the 2015 legislative session would likely have a disproportionate impact. If several legislators have their way, vouchers would be given to low-income students at the state’s lowest-performing schools, the majority of which are clustered in Memphis.

Several Catholic, Christian and Muslim private schools in Memphis that already serve low-income students stand to gain millions with vouchers if they can fill their empty seats. Many of those schools’ leaders were there Tuesday to tout their academic successes using a model that includes spiritual teachings, corporal punishment, and small class sizes.

Opponents of vouchers point to several studies that show students with vouchers perform no better at private schools than at public schools (they sometimes perform worse), that public dollars should not be used for religious indoctrination and that vouchers take money from already cash-strapped public schools.

Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the American Federation for Children and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization once lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 2010, the two organizations galvanized thousands of black parents in Florida to push through voucher legislation that now provides $357.8 million in scholarships that fund about 69,000 students’ private school educations.  The program is currently being challenged in court by Florida’s NAACP branch, the teachers’ union, and PTA.

The SCLC and the American Federation for Children want to bring those same tactics to Tennessee, another Republican-dominated state where voucher legislation has a strong chance of passing.  They held a rally at the capitol this January that 1,200 people attended to help push through voucher legislation that would have made vouchers available to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee.

The voucher bill ultimately failed.

“This year, we decided we wanted to organize people in Memphis on their own turf instead of taking them to Nashville,” said Carra Powell, a lobbyist with the American Federation for Children, a national advocacy organization that advocates for school choice, particularly vouchers. in low-income communities.

Powell recently started hosting a weekly 30-minute radio program on WLOK to discuss school choice, holding regular community and government meetings with education advocates and holding several rallies here in Memphis.

“We’re thinking outside the box this year,” she said.

Nicole Gates and her daughters Brooklyn and Bheanna who attend St. John's catholic school.
Nicole Gates and her daughters Brooklyn and Bheanna who attend St. John’s Catholic School.

On Tuesday, speakers cited failing traditional public schools and the threat of a state takeover as reasons for expanded school choice. They also pointed to Memphis City Schools’ 2011 charter surrender which sparked a historic merger between suburban and city schools and a subsequent municipality split as evidence that the government has failed black children.

“We recognize that the children have to be educated, trained, enriched, and nurtured,” said Dwight Montgomery, a local minister and the president of Memphis’ SCLC chapter.

Gates’ daughters, Brooklyn and Bheanna, are being tutored this year and their reading scores have improved at St. John’s. But the price tag isn’t getting cheaper.  She’s had to pay for field trips, school supplies and “just about everything else you can think of.”

“I’ll be glad when this (voucher legislation) passes,” she said.  Her other daughter, Yolanda, attends a charter school because she couldn’t afford private school for her. “They need to quit playing around.  This couldn’t come soon enough.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.