VOL. 132 | NO. 9 | Thursday, January 12, 2017
NAACP Panel Hears Differing Local Views On Charter Schools
By Bill Dries
It took awhile for an NAACP panel holding hearings on charter schools and their impact on education to wade into the complexity of charters in Memphis.
The panel for the national civil rights organization heard Tuesday, Jan. 10, that charters have become an effort to privatize schools the way prisons were privatized in the 1990s. They also heard that charters don’t “cherry-pick” the best students but help equalize access to a better education. And the seven members of the panel heard that charters have a place, but that there should be more thought given to where they fit long term, and their financial impact on public school districts.
The hearings by the NAACP’s National Task Force for Education began in December after the NAACP called for a national moratorium on public charter school funding.
The Memphis session at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people.
Tennessee has not-for-profit charter organizations – state law prohibits for-profit charter companies. There are charters approved by local school boards or the state and there are other charters that are part of the state-run Achievement School District.
Shelby County Schools board member Teresa Jones said there is a place for charter schools and school choice for parents, but there is an “elephant in the room.”
“The funding model is old, antiquated and not adequate and it actually pits charter against the traditional public school district,” she said. “If you are going to address the needs of all children, if you are going to say children need choice, if you are going to say the children who have the least need the most – but you just take a few here and a few there and you don’t address the lack of support for the ones who are left … you are really making it worse.”
Former SCS board member David Pickler, who is co-founder of the American Public Education Foundation, said charter schools have “nowhere near the level of oversight” required of public school districts.
“You are giving them public school dollars without true public school accountability,” he said.
He also said charter schools and school voucher programs for private schools are “niche” programs that “have become the tail that wags the dog.”
“We understand in public education that we have a need to get better. We must be reform leaders and change agents. If we don’t, there will be people in Washington that will very glad to do that,” Pickler told the panel. “The reality is the charter school, in my opinion, has become a vehicle for those whose agenda is to privatize public education, to re-segregate American schools.”
Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, questioned why schools taken over by the ASD are predominantly black and whether that is racial segregation that “relegates African-American children.”
The ASD is drawn from schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent in terms of student achievement.
ASD superintendent Malika Anderson said the fact that students in most of the schools taken over by the ASD are black speaks to “systemic inequities” that cause those students to be behind and in failing schools.
“That is creating the kind of failure we are seeing,” she told Johnson. “We go where the need is. … It would be discriminatory to not go where the need is.”
“Black children are not learning, but poor white children are?” Johnson replied.
Gloria J. Sweet-Love, the president of the NAACP’s Tennessee state conference, answered, “I think there is more to it than black and brown children.”
Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center, told the panel, “Now is not the time to limit growth.”
“Charters are not promoting segregation,” she added. “They are going into neighborhoods that are already segregated.”
In the case of the ASD, Jones said charters are often going into schools the Shelby County Schools system has no choice but to turn over and spend money on to renovate. That’s even though the school’s physical condition could be a factor in the decline in enrollment and student achievement.
“It was a real deep dive and struggle for our board to say, ‘I’m taking funds from other schools that are full of kids that are overenrolled and we need to take this school over here,’ when those children could have easily gone to a nearby school and that money could have been used more beneficially,” Jones said.
There has been more of a chance to make longer-term plans for the school system with the state not adding any new ASD schools this year to the 33 it operates, all but two of them in Memphis.
Jones said the relationship between the school system and charters, ASD and non-ASD, should have been done in “a more systematic, thoughtful way to provide for the financial stability of all of the districts.”
“We’ve been thrown into this atmosphere of competition, which competition – yes, it’s good,” she said. “But there are adverse consequences to that, that I think really hurt what’s best for all of the kids in this community.”