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 January 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.

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.