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.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.