2 Things the NAACP Got Right on Charter Schools

While I think there is a lot wrong with the NAACP’s look at charters, they did get two things right.

One is a substantive policy that we should take up, and the other is more of an admission that hopefully will lead us to a better conversation and meaningful action.

First, let’s look at the policy recommendation: ending for-profit charters.

1. For-Profit Charters Have No Place in Public Education

There is no profit to skim from public schools without hurting kids. When private firms are focused around profit, all sorts of mischief ensues.

Further, there is no evidence that for-profit charters increase learning—in fact they seem to deliver worse results than traditional public schools or nonprofit charter public schools.

Just look at the stats on achievement in the for-profit charter sector, which at best is middling and at worst is “abysmal.” Here in California, our experience with the very small for-profit sector is similarly dismal, with a range of fiscally and academically scandalous outcomes.

In my own experience I have seen sketchy practices from the few for-profits I have encountered. Things like loaning money to the school for facilities at exorbitant rates, or selling services of dubious value to charter school boards that deliberately aren’t equipped to exercise oversight and where outspoken and ethical educators can be shown the door for standing up for kids or the community.

Schools cannot serve two masters, and when profits and services compete—kids and families tend to lose.

Thankfully all of our charter public schools in Oakland are run by local not-for-profits, and there are actually very few for-profit charters in California. But we should ban for-profits from running the schools altogether.

In fact, this should actually be an easy one to agree on. When I asked the California Charter Schools Association about their stance—I was a little surprised—they supported a ban.

Sadly, though, it’s not that easy, as some folks would rather play politics than get to agreement (more on this in a later blog).

I have not seen a single, fact-based argument for charter schools run by for profit companies. And I challenge anyone to argue for them on the facts. Seriously, I will even publish it here on the blog.

The NAACP is right: For-profit charters should be banned.

2. This Charter School Debate Is a Distraction

No sector is serving Black children well over all—not traditional public schools, not charter public schools, not private schools or even homeschools—nothing. The numbers tell the story.

And despite all the time and energy devoted to charter bashing, they make up a tiny proportion of the schools (dis)serving Black kids.

So why is there a focus on this 7 percent of schools when it diverts needed attention from the other 93 percent of public schools?

The NAACP has only perpetuated this problem through the process of creating this report, but thankfully they do acknowledge the issue, buried pretty deeply in the report. Here is how Chalkbeat summarized it:

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.”

Graduation rates and achievement for Black students, while pitiful, are better than they have ever been. We’ve got to focus on Black student achievement everywhere, in every school. You could get rid of every charter school tomorrow and it would not help the Black community a whit.

In fact I think you would have revolt on your hands from some Black parents, who are being relatively well served by their charters.

There is a raging fire and here we are, arguing about where to spray the hose—with the NAACP focusing on only one room as the house is consumed by flames.

The Continuing Fight for the Soul of the NAACP

The NAACP was born from a marriage of convenience that has never been reconciled. White liberals and Black liberationists, like W.E.B. Du Bois, had very different visions of the role of the organization and its tactics. Those schisms are still playing out today in efforts like the misguided charter school resolution released this week.

But before we get to that, let’s go back to the beginning to analyze that organizational fissure. Let’s follow it through history, and see how it affects us now.

Early Contradictions at the Birth of the NAACP

David Levering Lewis captured the inherent conflict in the founding of the NAACP in the seminal Du Bois biography, “W.E.B. Du Bois, Biography of a Race”:

Since its beginning the year before the Conference on the Status of the Negro, the evolving NAACP had tacked between two divergent conceptions of itself; the first as a primarily white organization dedicated to African American uplift through well financed suasion; the second as an interracial phalanx challenging the mainstream public to accept ever greater civil and social rights for the nation’s historic minority.

There was a constant battle against co-optation in the organization and in watering down its work. Mary Ovington, one of the founders, described how most of the energy in the early discussions went into “trying to keep the conservatives from capturing us and getting money from the radicals to do a minimum of constructive work.”

This is a struggle that has continued through the organization’s existence. Grassroots Black folks often have a very different view of liberation than White sponsors. And it is one that trailed into the civil rights era and even today.

Who Really Drives the Ship?

Brother Malcolm followed this thread of internal contradiction, looking at how the “puppeteer had manipulated” the NAACP, picking fights within the Black community, rather than fighting to abolish larger power structures. (Malcolm drops some truth.)

As I have argued before, the education system has failed to serve Black children across all sectors. Singling out charter schools for derision misses the larger picture. It moves us away from real answers. Also, and importantly—it’s not what Black parents want.

Black families largely support charters and school choice. I challenge anyone to show a credible survey that shows me otherwise. And this not because charters do such a great job across the board. It’s more the devil and the deep blue sea—or the devil you know versus the potential devil you don’t.

The State of Black Education

I don’t see anything for us to be conservative about when it comes to education. The educational outcomes for Black youth teeter between depressing and enraging—again across all sectors. Just take a look at the Black Minds Matter report from the Education Trust–West.

Among racial groups, Black students in California are least likely to:

  • Become proficient readers by third grade;
  • Be placed in Gifted and Talented Education programs;
  • Master the mid-level mathematics skills that position students for success in college-preparatory math courses;
  • Be placed in a full sequence of college-preparatory courses;
  • Complete an Advancement Placement (AP) course;
  • Graduate from high school in four years; and
  • Complete a college degree.

And they are most likely to:

  • Be suspended or expelled;
  • Be taught by ineffective teachers;
  • Be identified for special education; and
  • Take remedial, non-credit bearing coursework in college.

And look at Oakland: A Black youth here has a 23.6 percent chance of even taking the classes to allow them to apply to the University of California and California State University (and that’s actually a huge improvement on the 2.9 percent rate of 2003).

The Contemporary “Crisis”

In the founding of the NAACP, Du Bois wrote the influential newsletter, “The Crisis”—and there were some in the NAACP who wanted him to tone it down, for whom the “thunder and lightning in ‘The Crisis’ seemed dangerously inflammatory,” as the biographer Lewis described the conflict.

Back to that old marriage of convenience and who would get the final say. For that chapter, and Du Bois’ relationship with NAACP, you will have to read the book. But there is a present-day chapter to be written.

We still have a “Crisis.” It’s societal, but it is deeply rooted in education. And looking at the NAACP’s misguided charter school resolution—which defies the will of the vast majority of Black families and overlooks the tragedy befalling the vast majority of Black children who happen to attend the traditional public schools—I can see who is running this marriage right now.

I just hope that the other spouse can find their voice, because our children need them.

A History Lesson for Randi on Black Education in America

America’s system of education was built for racial dominance.  Anyone who actually studies history knows that.  So it was curious to read  the Times article “Teachers Union Chief; School Choice Rooted in Segregation” this week, where AFT president Randi Weingarten singled out “school choice” for its purported racist roots, when a more accurate title really should have read something like “American Society Rooted in Segregation.”

This matters because if we care about dismantling segregation root and branch we need to start at the base and not focus on one small twig.

And while, yes, I agree choice has been used for segregation, so have district boundaries, the state militias, private housing choices, public housing policy, state and local laws, the supreme court, tracking, etc. And lest we forget the segregated schools that we are supposedly desegregating—were segregated by law—those are the traditional public schools, and they are still fighting desegregation, not with pickets and pitchforks, but neighborhood boundaries and admission tests.

So yeah school choice has some roots in segregation, but the American education system is deeply rooted in it. And to focus on one and not the other seems either disingenuous or just naive.

So let’s look at how great things were for Black folks prior to school choice and how well we were served by the “public” education system.

From Wikipedia:

The fears of slave insurrections and the spread of abolitionist materials and ideology led to radical restrictions on gatherings, travel, and—of course—literacy. The ignorance of the slaves was considered necessary to the security of the slaveholders[4] Not only did owners fear the spread of specifically abolitionist materials, they did not want slaves to question their authority; thus, reading and reflection were to be prevented at any cost.

Each state responded differently to the insurrection. While Mississippi already had laws designed to prevent slave literacy, in 1841 the state legislature passed a law that required all free African-Americans to leave the state so that they would not be able to educate or incite the slave population. …While states like South Carolina and Georgia had not developed legislation that prohibited education for slaves, other, more moderate states responded directly to the 1821 revolt. In 1833, Alabama enacted a law that fined anyone who undertook a slave’s education between $250 and $550; the law also prohibited any assembly of African-Americans—slave or free—unless five slave owners were present or an African-American preacher had previously been licensed by an approved denomination.

Even North Carolina, which had previously allowed free African-American children to attend schools alongside whites, eventually responded to fears of insurrection. By 1836, the public education of all African-Americans was strictly prohibited.

These were the laws of the land, public schools were not meant to liberate Blacks, we were deliberately kept ignorant. Some might say we still are.

Formal segregation was the norm in the North and the South in the traditional public schools, and even after Brown v Board of Education and the Supreme Court’s recognition that separate was inherently unequal.  The traditional public schools remained segregated through a thousand clever legal mechanisms.  And traditional public schools are becoming increasingly segregated as we speak, which apparently is not a concern.

From US News:

A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that from school years 2000-2001 to 2013-2014, the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent.Moreover, these schools were incredibly racially and economically concentrated: 75 to 100 percent of the students were black or Hispanic and poor.

Segregation is a problem. The use of public resources to privilege the privileged and further disadvantage the disadvantaged is shameful and should be discouraged, in whatever guise it appears. These are not “choice” problems, they are American problems. And racism and segregation are as American as apple pie, and have been around even longer than it.

To address this we don’t need scapegoats, we need honesty—so yeah, choice in some cases has contributed to segregation, but so has everything else in the U.S. education system. And if we are looking for solutions we need to focus on the problems, not scoring political points.

 

2 Big Takeaways in the Latest Charter and District Comparisons in Oakland

If you haven’t seen Informing Equity: Student Need, Spending and Resource Use in Oakland’s Public Schools, you should.

It is a critical first step in understanding what is happening in the difference public education sectors in Oakland and across the range of schools. I will excerpt the reports own big takeaways, but there are two critical ones I want to start with.

The Sectors Need to Talk

First, we need to talk, and share data across public school sectors in Oakland. Charters are more than a bit player—at roughly 30 percent of public school students—and the collection and thoughtful comparison of data is a critical step in understanding better what is actually happening, and then what we can do about it.

This effort to actually share across sectors, conducted jointly by The Oakland Achieves Partnership and Education Resource Strategies, was the most collaborative I’ve seen in Oakland.

I know there are critics to district–charter collaboration, but this should be evidence against that position.

This was the work of the Public Schools Equity Pledge or the Public Pledge or whatever it’s called now in its dormant state. But cutting off lines of communication or collaboration, may draw a line in the sand, but it does not help students, families, or the public to understand what is actually happening. And the average family is much less concerned with the governance model, or charter versus district, than they are with the quality of the school. They want the sectors to talk and to provide better information.

Digging Deeper for Insights

Second, this first round of data really does not answer many questions. It should get us asking them. And I have already heard the back and forth start.

Are the lower special education numbers in some charters because they don’t enroll students or because they serve students well without referring them for special education services or because the district over-refers, and tends to put more children in special day classes? For each area of the report there are arguments for and against, but now at least we are in a position to do the next level of analysis—and start asking the why questions, based on valid data.

And there is extremely wide variation across both public school sectors, with some charters vastly over-representing high needs students and others vastly under-representing, same with the district schools. So the sector generalities really don’t apply to any individual school.

The Report’s Key Findings

The report had three big findings. From the report:

This study examines district-run and charter schools in Oakland across three dimensions: (1) student need, (2) resource levels, and (3) resource use. We analyzed data for the 2014-15 school year from every school run by Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), as well as 32 charter schools, which serve 88 percent of all the charter school students in Oakland. In some cases, we also compared Oakland to a set of peer districts from around California or around the country.

On high-needs students:

Student Need: Overall, the student population in OUSD schools had greater needs than did the Oakland charter school student population. District schools are serving a greater proportion of higher-needs students, in terms of incoming academic proficiency, students in need of special education services, and late entering students.

The report also noted some trends and policy issues that may impact the numbers:

  • Compared to peer districts in California and nationally, OUSD places 30 percent more of its special needs students in restrictive environments, which are more costly.
  • The state funding law that caps concentration funds for charter schools is resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue for charters serving high-needs students, making it more challenging for charters to serve them.

So, while charters do serve more low-income students and English-learners overall, based on the data they do serve less of the highest needs students.

Part of this is a function of charter school lotteries, which take place in spring, and by their nature tend to disadvantage latecomers, who on average, will have higher needs.

But that means that as a sector we need to look at some of our practices and get creative.

Getting Creative on Charter Admissions

Rather than using a ranked waitlist, we could re-lottery a percentage of open seats in the summer, so latecomers would have a fair chance.

And we need to think about how we reach and serve foster and homeless students better. And while the charter school common enrollment system is a step in the right direction, and I know they did lot of outreach, I would love to see Enroll Oakland Charters going out to even more shelters, and partnering with more community advocates, working to extend access to our most challenged families. I’d love for our schools to also develop the specific differentiated supports that some students need.

We also need to look harder at admissions preferences for underserved students. These are actually pretty commonplace in New York, but not so here. Alongside a push to reform the funding formula, this would encourage schools to take those higher-need students and get funding for them.

Resource Levels and Use

The report also found that charters get significantly fewer resources than district schools, which may surprise some given the rhetoric we hear about rich charter schools.

Similarly, when we look at how the money is spent, one glaring issue is the amount of public funding spent on private rents—over $2,000 per child in the most extreme situation.

But in terms of whether the resource disparities are “fair,” we need to look harder at the data and ask some additional questions.

From the report:

Resource Levels: In 2014-2015 OUSD spent $1,400 more per pupil than the average charter school on operating expenses, adjusted for student need differences in special education, English-learner status and eligibility for Free and Reduced Price Meals. This adjustment does not capture other potential differences in student need, such high mobility rates and or the number of students entering school significantly behind academically.

Again, we have some raw data to start with, but not the answers as to whether these disparities in funding may be justified somehow. We need to do that next step of answering the question.

Resource Use and the High Cost of Private Facilities

The most glaring issue here is how much money charters spend on facilities and the wide disparities:

Resource Use: OUSD district-run and charter schools used their resources differently in several important ways…

  • Rent for space: Across charters, spending on rent varied from $190 to $2,250 per pupil, with those renting from OUSD generally spending less per pupil than others.

In a state where Proposition 39 gives charters the right to use district facilities, it seems like a waste of resources to pay landlords. Just imagine: that $2,250 per child could make a huge difference if it was invested in instruction.

There will be much more to come in terms of data and analysis, but I hope that this report keeps us talking and asking the right next set of questions based on real data.

That’s what families want, and it’s the only way we will move public education forward in Oakland.

Watch These Oakland Students Tell Us How to Understand and End Gun Violence

About the Author: Sophia Sobko is a former teacher and current graduate student at UC Berkeley.

​Last Friday evening E14 Gallery in Downtown Oakland buzzed as 7th and 8th graders from Lighthouse Community Charter School shared their research, artwork, and writing on gun-related violence in Oakland. The exhibit was the culmination of a year of research and creative production exploring the causes, consequences, and potential solutions of gun violence in their community and beyond.

Student ambassadors spread across the spacious gallery, leading visitors through the exhibit’s many stations: research and data, history of the 2nd amendment, narratives, art campaigns, potential solutions, and participant response. Student speakers moved between English and Spanish, sharing statistics and personal stories about gun violence with one goal: to educate others and move them to action.