problems and solutions

6 problems the NAACP has with charter schools — and 5 of its ideas for how to reshape the sector

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.

After calling for a temporary ban on new charter schools last year, the NAACP has revealed what would it would take to get the civil rights group to support the privately run, publicly funded sector.

The lengthy report, released Wednesday, allows for the fact that some charters are doing well, but also relates an exhaustive list of concerns. About 5 percent of the country’s public school students attend charters, with an even larger share of black students, the focus of the NAACP report.

To address the concerns, the group offers a set of recommendations that could dramatically curb the sector if adopted. The recommendations are aligned with the country’s two major teachers unions, which have ramped up their criticism of charter schools amid U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s advocacy for them. Here’s what the NAACP is worried about, what we know about those issues, and what the group’s recommendations could mean for the charter school world.

NAACP’s problems with charters

1. Charters schools have mixed performance.

The NAACP argues that “research finds mixed outcomes for charters as a group—with some doing better and others were doing worse than district-run public schools.”

It’s generally true that charters perform comparably to district schools, as measured by standardized test scores. Charter schools do seem to perform especially well in urban areas, including in Boston, New Orleans, and New York City, as well as specific charter networks.

2. Charter schools close frequently, sometimes leaving students in a lurch.

The report points out that charters close relatively frequently, particularly schools serving many black students. “While school closures are sometimes seen as evidence that charter schools are in fact more accountable than public schools, charter school closures can seriously disrupt students’ learning, especially when closures occur during the school year,” the NAACP analysis states.

In one recent example, three Detroit charters closed to the surprise of families, leaving them scrambling to find a new school. However, there is evidence in Ohio and New Orleans that when charters are closed based on low performance, students benefit in terms of achievement.

3. Charters suspend black students at high rates and have been accused of pushing out certain students.

During the NAACP’s hearing across the country, the report says, “many participants testified about students with special needs, those perceived as poor test takers, or those who pose as a behavioral challenge are either not accepted, or once enrolled, disciplined or counseled out of many charter schools.” A report by the California ACLU found that one in five of the state’s charters had explicit and illegal discriminatory policies, though there is limited research on this issue more broadly. Some studies have not found evidence that charters push out students — at least not at greater rates than district schools.

The NAACP report also raised concerns about high rates of suspensions in charter schools, particularly of black students. One recent study found that charter schools were significantly more likely to be suspend black students than white students — but this is also the case in district schools. Civil rights advocates including the NAACP fear that this sort of exclusionary discipline make students more likely to drop out of school and create a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

4. Charter schools have been accused of lacking financial transparency and accountability.

“The extent to which charter schools are financially accountable and transparent often varies depending upon the strength of individual state charter laws,” the NAACP says, citing a number of examples.

Thorough reports in North Carolina, Michigan, and Ohio have raised concerns about financial impropriety.

A national analysis highlighted ways that charter schools could profit off of lax oversight requirements. “The multiple layers of private school operations and management, governing boards of private citizens, and in some cases, authorization by private entities, presents far greater opportunity to shield documents and avoid constitutional and statutory protections in the charter sector,” according to the report.

It is unclear, though, to what extent the charter sector differs in this respect compared to district schools and how widespread improprieties are.

5. Charter schools may increase segregation.

Most studies have found that charters are more racially and economically segregated than public schools generally,” the NAACP writes.

That’s true, though charter supporters note that this may be because charters are more likely to be located in cities that are themselves segregated. Careful analyses in a number of cities that examine how students transfer to and from schools over time do find evidence that charter schools exacerbate segregation, though the findings are not uniform.

6. For-profit and virtual charter schools are especially troubling in light of low performance.

The NAACP said that in the listening tour concerns about for-profit and virtual charter schools repeatedly came up, with the report describing “widespread findings of misconduct and poor student performance in for-profit charter schools.”

As the report points out, recent studies have shown that virtual charter schools produce dramatically worse results than public schools, and that for-profit charters perform modestly worse than non-profit charters. Some states like New York already bar for-profit charters, but they make up a large sector in other places, such as Michigan and Florida.

NAACP’s recommendations for charters

1. Eliminate for-profit charters

The NAACP recommends getting rid of for-profit charter schools — a position that is in line with many left-of-center charter school advocates. About one in five charter students attend a school run for profit, with even more doing so in certain states like Michigan and Florida.

2. Ensure that only school districts can authorize charters.

About 90 percent of authorizers right now are school districts, though it’s unclear what percentage of charter schools they authorize. Many states also allow state boards, universities, or independent commissions to approve and oversee charters. The NAACP wants to see those alternative authorizers eliminated in favor of a single overseer that can “monitor the supply of schools across the district … and ensure that high-quality schools open in neighborhoods that most need them.”

In response to the NAACP position, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers argued that school districts do not provide consistently strong oversight of charters. And it’s unclear what would happen in places, such as New York City, where relatively few charters are authorized by the district.

3. Mandate that only certified teachers be hired at charters.

“Charter schools should not be permitted to waive any licensing requirements for teacher and leaders working in their schools,” the NAACP report says, a position in step with the teachers unions. State policy on this issue varies. One authorizer in New York City has recently started a controversial move to allow charters to certify their own teachers. Research suggests that certification is only a modest predictor of teacher performance.

4. Tighten authorizing and accountability requirements.

The NAACP wants tougher oversight on charter schools’ disciplinary rules, recruitment and retention of students, financial practices, and academic performance. A number of these recommendations might be well received by progressive charter backers. For instance, on the issue of school discipline the NAACP highlights the approach of Washington, D.C.’s independent charter board, which many charter advocates have also praised. (Notably, though, this board would not be allowed under the NAACP’s recommendation that only districts can operate charters.) More conservative charter advocates — who already believe that charters are subject to too much regulation — are unlikely to support these ideas.

5. Improve the public school system as a whole.

A number of NAACP recommendations have nothing — directly — to do with charters. For instance, the report suggests “more equitable and adequate funding for schools serving students of color.” The group also backs the idea of community schools and pre-kindergarten.

Perhaps ironically after devoting an entire report to the topic, the NAACP suggests that charter schools may be a distraction: “It is a concern that charter schools have had a larger influence on the national conversation about how to improve education in communities of color than these other well-researched educational investments.”

Pushback

National head of DFER after Colorado Democrats’ platform vote: ‘We’re not going anywhere’

PHOTO: Newark Trust
DFER President Shavar Jeffries

The national head of Democrats for Education Reform responded to the dramatic rejection of his organization at the Colorado Democratic Party state assembly with a simple message: We’re not going anywhere.

In an email to supporters that he also posted on Medium Thursday, Shavar Jeffries laid out his credentials as a Democrat and said disagreements over education policy should remain a “family fight.”

“We understand that on some issues, some in our party disagree with us,” Jeffries wrote. “We welcome that disagreement, and we welcome the debates that ensue periodically. We stay true to our principles because we believe our vision best reflects the values of the party and the outcomes we seek for young people.

“But we will fight  –  when fights are necessary  –  anchored in the understanding that this is a family fight and thus we will not engage in the politics of personal destruction against those with whom we disagree.”

Jeffries went on to blame the election of President Donald Trump on an unwillingness among Democrats to set aside their differences.

“Trump is president to a large degree because progressives and liberals engaged in a civil war over the 10 percent of policies where we might disagree, as opposed to uniting around the 90 percent where we agree,” Jeffries wrote. “Hillary Clinton was booed at the DNC convention in 2016 by the same forces that still seek to sow division within our party. Our unity is our best weapon against the ongoing assault to our democracy visited upon the country each day by Trump.”

Jennifer Walmer, the head of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, was booed down by delegates at Saturday’s assembly. Those delegates went on to adopt into the official party platform a call for DFER to stop using “Democrats” in its name.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the backing of the teachers unions, won 62 percent of the vote at the party assembly. The platform vote happened later in the day, after some of the more than 3,000 delegates had left.

It’s not clear how the platform provision could be enforced. Some members want the party to send a cease-and-desist letter to Democrats for Education Reform, something the Los Angeles Democratic Party tried in 2012, with no apparent effect.

The Colorado vote drew cheers and jeers locally and around the country. In New York City, one blog called it a “ray of sunshine” that could signal cracks in support for reform policies. Meanwhile, conservatives used the vote to cast Democrats as extremists. The editorial board of the Colorado Springs Gazette said it represented “a far-left shift in the Democratic Party.”

Education reform has become an increasingly divisive issue within the Democratic Party. Since the 2016 presidential election, opponents of a suite of reform policies, like charter schools and test-based teacher accountability laws, have increasingly sought to tie Democratic proponents of these policies to the unpopular president and his education secretary.

Jeffries said his organization would not be dissuaded by those tactics.

“If our intra-party opponents would prefer counter-productive family warfare as opposed to unity around shared values, this should be clear too: We stand with the millions of families across our country demanding access to high-quality public schools and the thousands of elected Democrats who fight tirelessly to ensure they get it,” he said. “We are not going anywhere.”

You can read Jeffries’ entire statement here.

get out the vote

Can schools encourage students to be more involved citizens? A new study suggests yes they can.

Democracy Prep charter network superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 admissions lottery event.

In a city of roughly 1,800 schools, many have names that have little to do with what students experience.

Not so for Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools that a new study concludes makes students far more likely to vote once they turn 18.

The study, conducted by independent researchers commissioned by Democracy Prep, took advantage of New York City’s charter school admissions rules to examine the impact of applying to, getting accepted to, and enrolling in the network’s schools on later civic participation.

Looking at more than a thousand students who applied between 2007 and 2015 who were old enough to vote in 2016, the researchers found that just being selected in the admissions lottery was correlated with a slight increase in voting rates. Students who were chosen voted 6 percent more often than students who were not.

The impact was much greater on students who were chosen and actually enrolled: They voted 24 percent more often than students who applied but never got a chance to attend.

The findings suggest that Democracy Prep is achieving its explicit goal of promoting civic participation. They also offer one answer to the question of whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, undermine democracy.

“Democracy Prep provides a test case of whether charter schools can successfully serve the foundational purpose of public education—preparation for citizenship—even while operating outside the direct control of elected officials,” the researchers write. “With respect to the critical civic participation measures of registration and voting, the answer is yes.”

Seth Andrew, who started the network with a single middle school in Harlem in 2006, said he was pleased by the findings — and unsurprised, because the network has baked civic participation into its culture and academic program. Students must take on a personal “Change the World” project and pass the U.S. citizenship exam to graduate.

“This idea of ‘change the world’ was very central to what we were trying to get our kids prepared and excited to do,” he said.

Creating more engaged citizens takes more than just adding a civics class, said Katie Duffy, the CEO of Democracy Prep. Schools have to make democracy a part of the daily culture, she said.

“The more you talk about the importance of voting, the importance of elections, the importance of advocacy,” she said, “the more it becomes ingrained in our kids.”

The network has also long used Election Day — when district-run schools are often closed so their buildings can be used as polling stations — as a teachable moment.

In 2008, Democracy Prep students spent the day working to get out the vote in their neighborhoods. Four years later, Democracy Prep schools were among the few housed in city space that got special permission to stay open — and the network sent students out to advance the “Vote for Somebody” campaign it had kicked off in a catchy viral video. The next year, students promoted a different message — “I can’t vote but you can” — in an effort to boost the city’s 11 percent primary election voter participation rate.

The network’s influence extends far beyond its students. In 2012, six years into the network’s existence, officials estimated that students had helped 5,000 New Yorkers register to vote. Now, the network runs 22 schools in five states.

Andrew said the study’s findings about the impact of the network — which he left in 2012 to work on other civic engagement initiatives, including at the White House — offer only a start at a time when the United States lags behind other developed countries in voter turnout.

“I was thrilled with the outcome,” said Andrew. “But the as the guy that founded Democracy Prep I feel like there’s a whole lot of room to grow.”