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.

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”