Front and center

NAACP to put Memphis in spotlight in national debate over charter schools

PHOTO: The Enquirer/Meg Vogel
About 140 parents and grandparents from Memphis Lift disrupt the national NAACP board meeting last October in Cincinnati to rally for school choice.

In the national debate about oversight and funding of charter schools, Memphis is at the crossroads of efforts to use charters to move students from bad public schools to classrooms with higher-quality seats.

Since Tennessee began authorizing charters in 2003 to bring innovation to its low-performing schools, the sector in Memphis has mushroomed to nearly 75 schools overseen by either the local system or state-run district. Though the performance of charters has been spotty thus far, most agree that their presence has been a catalyst for improving the city’s traditional schools.

At the same time, oversight of the growing sector has been inadequate, prompting Shelby County Schools to seek state funding and national help to develop a stricter accountability system for its charter schools. The state’s charter-reliant turnaround district also has faced scrutiny — but few consequences — for its mostly lackluster performance. And local education leaders have increasingly blamed charter schools for siphoning off both students and funding from a local district that already is struggling with enrollment and strapped for cash.

Memphis takes the national spotlight on Tuesday when the NAACP holds its second of seven public hearings across the nation on the impact of charter schools on public education. The hearings are sponsored by the National Task Force for Quality Education, which the NAACP created after the civil rights group in October approved a moratorium on charter expansion to study issues related to the sector’s transparency, accountability, funding and discipline practices. Subsequent hearings are planned for Detroit, New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Orlando.

“In our communities in Memphis and around the nation, public education has always been the fountain of opportunity and we’ve got to ensure that in our attempts to improve it, we don’t unintentionally let it run dry,” said NAACP CEO and President Cornell William Brooks. “Ensuring that underfunded districts are not disparately impacted by the growth of charters or privatization has always been a priority for the NAACP.”

Debate over the moratorium has underscored the divide among civil rights groups over the best direction for improving school options for poor and minority students.

The issue gained even more scrutiny when President-elect Donald Trump picked Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos for U.S. education secretary. DeVos, who will begin confirmation hearings this week, is a passionate advocate for school-choice mechanisms such as charter schools and tuition vouchers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
NAACP Tennessee State Conference President Gloria Sweet-Love presents the state’s response in October to the national NAACP board’s call.

In addition to being a national battleground city for school improvement efforts, Memphis is home to one of the nation’s largest NAACP chapters. Three Memphians sit on the organization’s national board, and Gloria-Sweet-Love, who presides over the Tennessee State Conference, is on the 11-member national task force. A few weeks after the national board’s vote, she called for action nationwide to keep charter schools in check but also defended Tennessee’s charter sector.

Sweet-Love said Monday that the NAACP wants to use the panel’s hearings to shine a light on district funding and charter school accountability.

“We want to make sure schools are equitably funded and the kids that need the most have the resources there for them,” she told Chalkbeat. “We should not be starting a new charter school if there’s not enough funding.”

Sweet-Love says charter schools can bring innovation to traditional schools but that accountability measures must keep pace with the sector’s rapid growth. “Charter schools have sprung up everywhere so I think it’s important we make sure they all show transparency and accountability,” she said.

Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center, says the state’s charter school laws are stronger than most states on accountability and oversight. She hopes the NAACP’s task force will recognize the nuance.

“It’s not one monolithic culture of charter schools nationwide,” said Bugg, who plans to participate in Tuesday’s hearing. “Memphis is on the cusp of a education renaissance. (The hearing) is an opportunity for us to think about where are we? Where are we going? And what schools have helped us get there? Charter schools have been a nice piece of that puzzle to strengthen education.”

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated. Tennessee law allows only nonprofit ones that are authorized by local districts or the state.

“We are all public schools all working toward public good,” Bugg said. “I think it would be a misstep for us to put an end to or limit schools and systems that are working for our students. And some of our charter schools are doing that. Tennessee is a model.”

The task force’s first hearing elicited four hours of passionate debate last month in New Haven, Conn., where charter advocates and detractors discussed the merits of charter schools for minority students in particular, whether or not charter schools take away resources from traditional school districts, and if a majority of black and Hispanic parents even want them.

The task force plans to present a preliminary report to the national NAACP in May and present full recommendations at its July meeting in Baltimore.

Invitees to the Memphis hearing include:

  • Malika Anderson, superintendent of the Achievement School District
  • Teresa Jones, school board member, Shelby County Schools
  • Carol Johnson, former superintendent of Memphis City Schools and former director of schools in Boston and St. Paul, Minn.
  • Earl Watkins, chairman of Mississippi State’s NAACP education committee
  • Merwyn L. Scott, director of minority community organizing and partnership, National Education Association NEA
  • Maya Bugg, CEO, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Patrick Washington, director, Promise Academy
  • David Pickler, co-founder, American Public Education

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.