Yesterday the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, released an extraordinary report from a national Task Force on Quality Education, convened last October by the NAACP’s board of directors. The Task Force was charged with investigating the operation of charter schools across the states in response to a resolution passed by the NAACP last October that demanded a moratorium on new charter schools until four conditions are met: that charter schools be subject to the same transparency and accountability as public schools; that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of public school systems; that charters cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and that charters “cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”
Soon after appointing the Task Force, the new report explains, the NAACP’s board of directors realized the group must investigate not only the operation of charters but also the broader issue of “the protection of quality public education for all inner-city children.” The resulting Task Force on Quality Education was charged to hold hearings across the country and to report its findings this summer at the national NAACP convention, currently underway, in Baltimore. Hearing sites were seven U.S. cities: New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York.
I encourage you to read and reflect on the entire, and very readable, thirty page report, because even the report’s excellent executive summary cannot convey the authenticity of the comments from testimony across so many very different communities. Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s vice president, is quoted from his own testimony at the Task Force’s Detroit hearing: “Here’s the moral walk: That the same quality and equity that a child would receive in Bloomfield Hills is guaranteed for every child in the city of Detroit… that we insist (on) a system, not hodgepodges of opportunity, but a comprehensive system for all children.”
A short primer on charter schools begins the report with a definition of charter schools: “Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are nearly always privately operated by an appointed board under a written contract (or ‘charter’) with a state, district, or other organization, depending on the state… Charter schools generally have flexibility from many laws and regulations that govern neighborhood public schools, as long as the charter school meets the terms of its charter.”
The report seeks to be scrupulously fair—with a section on “perceived benefits of charter schools” and another on “perceived problems with charter schools.” In the section on perceived benefits, charter operators, parents and supporters are quoted telling the Task Force that charters graduate many children who later matriculate to college. Many charter schools, according to their proponents, “take and keep all students as other public schools do.” Some charters are said to do a very good job serving children living in poverty. The report explains: “As would be expected, charter school advocates and operators believe that their schools offer a strong education, and many argue that it is a better education than many neighborhood public schools.” The report describes parents, students, and community members who “love their charter school because it provides ‘the best education.'”
But many who came to the Task Force’s hearings testified about problems in particular charter schools. Educators, parents and community members told of even bigger problems in states with poor oversight of charter schools and the states that fail to regulate charter school authorizers.
- The Task Force heard about problems of access and retention—of exclusionary enrollment and push-out practices particularly for children with special needs. “In New Orleans, the Southern Poverty Law Center had to bring a lawsuit against the Recovery School District because so many special education students were rejected from all the charter schools they applied to.” “Witnesses explained that while a charter school may claim to be open to all students, between reserving seats prior to any lottery process, selective enrollment, the use of exclusionary discipline processes, and counseling out of students, it may actually be exclusive.” “Bob Wilson, a member of Journey for Justice from Chicago, Illinois, testified about a local study (which) f0und that Chicago charter school expulsion rates were more than 1,000% higher than those of Chicago Public Schools on a per-pupil basis.”
- People testified to the Task Force about uneven school quality. “Dr. Earl Watkins, Chair of Mississippi State NAACP Education Committee, explained that under Mississippi Code 372847: No more than 25% of teachers in a charter school in Mississippi may be exempt from state teacher licensure requirements. Administrators in charter schools in Mississippi do not have to be certified, and can hold only a bachelor’s degree to be a principal in that school… (Compare this to) traditional public schools where the threshold is 5% of staff can teach out of field or not be certified, and principals in public schools in Mississippi must be certified as administrators…” While proponents of charters brag that charters can be closed for poor quality (unlike traditional public schools), if such schools are closed, “Black students are particularly susceptible to being impacted by school closures… Charter schools are far less stable schooling options for communities than traditional or magnet schools.” Testifying from Broward County, Florida about the closure of 30 charter schools due to poor quality, a witness explained: “Broward County School District enrolls over 271,000 students and has over 300 schools. Closing 30 schools, 10% of the schools, represents a significant disruption to students’ education and district’s operations.”
- Lack of accountability and transparency in the charter sector was reported to the Task Force as a serious issue from place to place. The report compares oversight in Tennessee in contrast to Michigan: “The extent to which charter schools are financially accountable and transparent often varies depending upon the strength of individual state charter laws. For example, according to testimony on Tennessee State charter laws, ‘The schools are required to have audits, they’re required to report on academic achievement, financial management, and organizational facilities every year and report this information to districts and to the state.’ Compare this to Michigan, where according to the Detroit Free Press, ‘Michigan taxpayers pour nearly $1 billion a year into charter schools. But state laws regulating charters are among the nation’s weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.'” Poor oversight and accountability are also exemplified by significant variations in charter school staff salaries including charter school operators paid, in one case, a quarter of a million dollars and in another instance half a million dollars per year. Finally there is all the money spent to lobby for the perpetuation of poor regulation of charters—such as in Massachusetts in November 2016, when out-of-state Wall Street hedge fund managers, the Walton family and dark money PACs spent $25 million to lobby to raise the state’s cap on the authorization of new charters. The pro-charter lobbying frenzy failed to block regulation in this case, but the problem remains in many states.
- The Task Force reports that it heard about school choice and charters reducing access for children to schools in their own neighborhoods, requiring long commutes in some cities on public transportation: “One of the side-effects of extensive chartering is that children do not have a right to attend school in their neighborhood. In many communities, all of the neighborhood public schools have closed. Children may be rejected for admission from nearby charter schools or be unable to attend because nearby charters are full—or there may be no nearby schools at all… In some communities, like Detroit and Memphis, enrollments in neighborhood public schools are decreasing due to smaller populations in these cities and to charter schools enrolling more students.”
- Then there is the issue of for-profit charters: “Approximately 12% of U.S. charter schools are run by for-profit companies and approximately 15 states allow virtual schools, many of which are operated by for-profit organizations. In some cases the non-profit charter is run by a for-profit management company, to whom the nonprofit pays substantial fees.”
Summarizing concerns raised by witnesses who testified across seven community hearings—accountability issues, concerns about transparency, problems with disparate access for students and disparate standards, and concerns about authorizing and funding—the NAACP Task Force concludes: “Multiple parents and community members described the need for the state or district to govern all schools—traditional and charter—so that there’s one system of democratically-accountable, high-quality schools. This system would help students and families make sense of the variety of education options and ensure that all schools support student learning.”
Describing the need to replace educational fragmentation with systemic oversight, the Task Force quotes Tonya Allen, President of Detroit’s Skillman Foundation: “Not only is that a disaggregated system, there are 14 different entities that make decisions today about whether you open or close schools, and not one of them are necessarily coordinated. There’s no mandate on that. So, what we’ve gone from is basically a school system to what many would say (is) ‘a system of schools,’ except we have no system. Okay. So there’s no planning, there’s no support… So basically if you’re a parent and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to choose a school, it’s basic hunger games for you… Families are desperately looking for places, and we have nothing in our community… And so we have a hyper—I mean a hyper-competitive environment where you can have all of these various entities working in one geographic domain… There’s nobody, literally nobody in charge of the children in (the) the city of Detroit.”
The NAACP’s Task Force concludes: (W)hile high quality, accountable, accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity, by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children.”
The NAACP’s Task Force makes five excellent recommendations. I agree with all of them, and I’ll list them here (quoted from the report):
- Provide more equitable and adequate funding for schools serving students of color.
- Invest productively in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity and achievement gaps.
- Develop and enforce robust charter school accountability measures: (a) create and enforce a rigorous charter school authorizing and renewal process; (b) create and enforce a common accountability system; (c) monitor and require charter schools to admit and retain all students; (d) create and monitor transparent disciplinary guidelines that meet ongoing learning needs and prevent push out; (e) require charter schools to hire certified teachers.
- Require fiscal transparency and equity regarding the sources of revenues and how those resources are allocated.
- Eliminate for-profit charter schools.
I believe the primary importance of this report is in the moving and compelling narrative it creates of a disastrously uncoordinated and poorly regulated experiment that has hurt poor children and their families—especially black and brown children in the big cities where the charter experiment has been focused. The NAACP’s Task Force has significantly shaped a coherent narrative when nobody else has succeeded—connecting the dots across the 43 states where charter schools operate under 43 state laws.