This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A year after igniting controversy with a call for a moratorium on charter schools, the NAACP followed up with a new report that lists strategies for charter school reform, including a ban on for-profit charters and improvements in accountability and transparency.
“Too many students of color living in central cities are being deprived of the educational opportunities they deserve and need if they are to succeed in a world where education is the key that unlocks the door to the future,” wrote the report’s authors, who are members of the group’s Task Force on Quality Education.
The NAACP is maintaining its position on a moratorium on new charters, but is now looking into ways to reform them. The 108 year-old civil rights organization held hearings in seven U.S. cities and listened to education experts, community members, parents, teachers, and students share their thoughts on charter schools. The cities the group visited were: New York, New Haven, Memphis, Detroit, New Orleans, Orlando, and Los Angeles.
Each hearing yielded different concerns about charter schools, and the task force summarized them into a list of problems related to access and retention, teacher and school quality, accountability and transparency, transportation and closures, and for-profit charters.
“America must wake up to the fact that children of color and low-income families too often are subjected to shamefully under-resourced schools and education experiments that do not work,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Loretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the AFT, in a statement responding to the report.
To address those problems, the NAACP is calling for more equitable funding for schools serving children of color and productive investments in low-performing schools and in schools with significant gaps in opportunity and achievement. They also want to develop and enforce more robust charter school accountability and improve transparency in funding. The NAACP’s call for a moratorium last
year began a passionate debate among black educators and families about the merits of school choice. According to the NAACP, charter schools diverted funding from traditional public schools, increased segregation and discrimination, and lacked transparency and community involvement.
Now, the civil rights group is offering recommendations to improve the existing charter school system, with the exception of for-profit charters. Citing “widespread findings of misconduct and poor student performance,” the NAACP wants to eliminate for-profits altogether.
The report cites a 2017 Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study that found that “students attending a for-profit charter school have weaker growth in math than they would have in a traditional public school setting.” The study also found that growth in reading was similar.
For-profit charters make up about 13 percent of charter schools across the country, and their proliferation varies from state to state. Many of these are cyber charters set up as nonprofit organizations, but managed by for-profit companies.
“For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Public School, in her testimony at the New York City hearing.
“I don’t understand it. There’s no good reason for our states to allow this to happen to our kids. They are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”
In response to the report, Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus and a strong proponent of school choice, said: “Although their recommendations laid out clear needs such as fair funding, transparency, and investment in schools, they did not project any real leadership to bring about these changes.”
El-Mekki, a former teacher and principal in the Philadelphia School District, also said the NAACP isn’t doing enough to address failing public schools.
“That isn’t to say that charters should not be held accountable,” he said. “But to spend this much time on 7 percent of the schools in the country, while ignoring the historical and present black experience in the other 93 percent of schools should be beneath the NAACP. But unfortunately, it isn’t.”
In 2016-17, 3.1 million U.S. students went to charter schools, and about 56 percent of them were low-income. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 56 percent are black and Latino students.
Because of these statistics, much of the debate about charters centers on black families and educators looking to provide an adequate education to black and Latino students. However, some accuse charters of pushing some students out of their schools in an effort to retain the highest-performing students.
Although some advocates are steadfast in their belief that charters are the solution to education disparities, James Earl Davis, a higher education and educational leadership professor at Temple University, said that inconsistencies in the quality of charters have left some black families disillusioned.
“In black communities, we get an experience where we actually have some charter schools that are abysmal and are not providing the kind of appropriate learning environment for our children. Charters become, for some, an opportunity to experiment with black children and to provide less than a quality schooling experience,” said Davis.
In a 2016 national study of charters by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, researchers found that black students were three times more likely to be suspended than white students. Also, students with disabilities were more likely to be suspended than non-disabled students. The study included 80 charters in Philadelphia.
Such disparities, especially in high-performing charters, raised suspicions among researchers and charter opponents that the schools were pushing out low-performing students, essentially skewing their test results and college acceptance rates. This skimming would also put more pressure on district-run schools by leaving them with more of the students who are the most difficult to educate.
Philadelphia now has 81 of the state’s 152 charter schools, not counting the 22 Renaissance schools, which are former District neighborhood schools that are operated by charter management organizations.
Serving a third of the city’s student population, charter schools are the largest fixed expenditure in the underfunded Philadelphia School District. According to the District, cost projections of charters are predicted to exceed $800 million for fiscal year 2017-18 and increase to $900 million the following year.
The NAACP’s strong critical stance on charters has led many charter advocates to believe that the organization is out of touch or compromised by financial support from teachers’ unions. But at the Detroit hearing, Derrick Johnson, vice chair of the NAACP board of directors, said the organization’s mission is to ensure equity in education for all students.
“We insist [upon] a system, not hodgepodges of opportunity, but a comprehensive system for all children,” said Johnson, who was recently named the interim president and CEO of NAACP. “… That was the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.”