charter debate

Tennessee NAACP backs away from national call for charter pause

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
NAACP Tennessee State Conference President Gloria Sweet-Love presents the state's response to the national NAACP board's call for a moratorium on charter school expansion.

Tennessee’s NAACP leaders on Tuesday distanced the state organization from its national board’s call for a moratorium on charter schools, even calling the charter-reliant work of the state-run school district “a progressive spot” in Memphis.

Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the NAACP Tennessee State Conference, said problems associated with charter growth elsewhere in the nation aren’t as prevalent in the Volunteer State, where authorization is restricted to local school districts and the state.

“In Tennessee, we have some of the best oversight laws,” Sweet-Love said at a press conference at First Baptist Church Broad in Memphis, just three weeks after the national board’s vote.

“If the guys here in Memphis don’t do right, you got elected school board members who are part of the (local education agency) that school has to respond to. That is not happening all over the nation,” she said.

The state group’s position, which is supported by the NAACP’s Memphis chapter, represents an about-face from Memphis leaders’ call earlier this year for a moratorium on expanding the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which uses mainly charter operators to turn around chronically struggling schools. That call came in response to a Vanderbilt University study labeling the ASD’s results marginal thus far and suggesting the city’s low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

“I believe we’ll work through this,” Sweet-Love said, referring to ASD oversight and performance. “I believe the ASD is at a progressive spot now. I believe they’re moving to do some things to be more involved with the community.”

Sweet-Love said the state conference will advocate for “tightening” guidelines and legislation on how the state allocates funding for charters, referencing a recent state comptroller’s report citing “insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification” in how local school districts distribute that money.

The NAACP’s national board, which includes three Memphians, has instructed its chapters to advocate for legislation for a “reasoned pause” on the expansion of the charter sector nationwide until those concerns could be addressed. The vote puts Memphis in an unique position as home to both one of the nation’s largest NAACP chapters and a burgeoning charter school sector. The call also coincided with initiatives by Shelby County Schools to strengthen oversight of district-authorized charter schools and to tweak its process for revoking charters after receiving a strong reprimand from Tennessee’s State Board of Education about closing several schools this year.

Sweet-Love, who lives near Memphis in Brownsville, also serves on the NAACP’s national board and has been appointed to a task force examining charter schools. She reiterated the organization’s concerns about racial disparity in student discipline and the impact of limited funds on traditional schools.

Tennessee NAACP press conference from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Tuesday’s press conference was attended by about 35 representatives from student, parent and charter school advocacy groups such as the Tennessee Charter School Center, Stand for Children and Memphis Lift, as well as the ASD. All were invited to stay afterward for a discussion that was closed to news organizations.

To some in attendance, the messaging shift was out of step with the spirit of the national call to stop charter school expansion. To others, the shift was not enough.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway said he mostly supports the national NAACP’s position because he believes charter schools have strayed from their original purpose.

“My original perception of charter schools was here’s a chance to look at and develop best practices,” said Hardaway, founder of one of Tennessee’s first charter schools, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences. “We got away from quality when we took the cap off. … It was an open door for a lot of players not capable of delivering quality education.”

Local education leaders contacted later by Chalkbeat weighed in on the discussion.

Stephanie Love, a school board member for Shelby County Schools, said problems cited by the national NAACP board exist in Tennessee. She gets calls from involved parents at charter schools who have not been informed of charter board meetings or grievance processes, she said.

“Charters should be held to the same standard (as local school districts) because we’re all taking public dollars,” said Love, adding that transparency and accountability issues by locally authorized charters are being addressed by the district’s charter advisory committee. “And if that’s not happening in every charter school, we do have an issue.”

Keith Williams, who leads a leading teachers union in Memphis, echoed Love’s concerns.

Charter schools “may be public, but (their boards) are not elected. There’s no way you can put that up against public scrutiny. … It should not be at the expense of schools in the district,” said Williams, executive director of the Shelby County Education Association.

But Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, praised the position voiced by Sweet-Love and said the national board’s call was too broad.

“She gets it and she knows what’s good about charter schools,” he said. “A few bad actors in a few bad places can make a stereotypical view of charter schools and how they operate. … The dynamics that led to this wide-ranging thought just don’t exist in Tennessee.”

Tennessee’s NAACP conference plans to conduct community meetings to take feedback to the national organization’s task force.

Teresena Wright, who works for Memphis Lift, said involving parents in the discussion is paramount. Her parent advocacy organization disrupted the national board meeting in Cincinnati over the organization’s stance, which Wright said has caused a rift between charter parents and the NAACP.

“That national issue is not a Tennessee issue, but it became a Tennessee issue because it had been nationally voted on,” she said.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.